Effects on Ocean Among Primary Climate Concerns for Iceland

Waves crashing over Reykjavík lighthouse

Ocean acidification, increased frequency of landslides, and possible changes to ocean currents are some of the impacts of climate change that could most affect Iceland, according to the country’s experts. Responding to the newly released report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Iceland’s Environment Minister Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson says government around the world need to step up their response to the climate crisis.

The PICC’s newest climate change report, intended as a resource for policymakers, compiles the latest data on climate change. Compared to the panel’s earlier reports, its findings are categorical about climate change being caused by humans and about the severity of the consequences it has in store.

Ocean acidification as concerning as warming

Tómas Jóhannesson is Director of Glaciology and an expert on the avalanche team at the Icelandic Met Office. He says the impact on the ocean surrounding Iceland is one of the biggest concerns regarding the local impact of climate change. The earth’s ocean’s have absorbed around 90% of the heat that has accumulated due to the increased greenhouse effect.

Considering Iceland’s dependence on the ocean, its acidification as a result of the carbon it absorbs from the atmosphere could be a long-term issue for the country. Acidification can affect the survival of smaller ocean organisms, in turn affecting the survival of fish and sea birds. “The acidification of the sea is unequivocal and is just as much a reason to stop emissions as warming,” Tómas stated.

Read More: Iceland’s Plan to Become Carbon Neutral by 2040

Weakening currents and more frequent landslides

Weakening and even halting ocean currents is an unlikely but significant change that could occur as a result of continued global warming. Changes in the Atlantic Ocean’s system of currents, known as the AMOC, could affect climate and precipitation in Iceland and its tipping point is not known, according to Tómas. “The possibility of this is one of the reasons why it is very urgent to take action to stop this development.”

Global warming could increase the risk of landslides in Iceland, especially as permafrost in mountains and glaciers thaws. Warmers winters that bring rain rather than show could magnify that risk. “We are seeing landslides in areas where we have not expected landslides to occur or they were previously rare.” Whether the devastating landslides that occurred in Seyðisfjörður, East Iceland last winter are a result of global warming is, however, uncertain, according to Tómas.

Iceland must address agriculture and fisheries

Responding to the IPCC report, Iceland’s Environment Minister Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson called it “yet another confirmation that we need to do even better.” Energy exchange in fisheries and agriculture are two areas where Iceland needs to achieve better results, he told RÚV. Road transport, however, “has gotten off to a much better start and is beginning to yield results,” the Minister added. He added that authorities must ensure climate measures do not come down harder on low-income or marginalised groups.

Parliament Debated Highland National Park Until Midnight

Heated debate in Iceland’s Parliament lasted until midnight last night, RÚV reports. The topic was a bill proposing a Highland National Park, which if established would be the largest national park in Europe. While some MPs argued the bill went too far in preventing power plant development, others said it made too many concessions at the expense of the environment.

As the fall term draws to a close and 2021 elections approach, the governing coalition is hurrying to introduce and pass some of its most significant bills. Environment Minister Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson introduced the Highlands National Park bill in the chamber yesterday afternoon, calling it a unique opportunity for Althingi to create the largest national park in Europe and Iceland’s largest contribution to nature conservation in the world. Guðmundur asserted that the establishment of the park would strengthen tourism, create public jobs, and support municipalities across the country.

Opposing Views on Energy

MPs had opposing views when it came to the park, particularly on the topic of current and future energy development in the highland. Several power plants are currently within the proposed borders of the park – the bill proposes defining them as “peripheral areas” of the park and that the land they occupy not be protected. Further energy development within the park’s borders would, however, be prohibited.

Read More: Proposed Highland National Park

Independent MP Rósa Björk Brynjólfsdóttir stated that too many power plants were allowed within the park’s borders and the bill had made too many compromises at the expense of the environment. Progressive Party MP Halla Signý Kristjánsdóttir argued, however, that the bill threatened energy security by preventing energy development. The bill would affect existing overhead power lines in the highland, as well as planned underground cables and maintenance of the existing transmission system, she stated.

Criticise Lack of Consultation With Municipalities

Several MPs were critical of what they called a lack of consultation with municipal authorities, particularly those bordering the proposed park. Independence Party MP and former Minister of Transport Jón Gunnarsson stated that the bill was put together too quickly and felt personally that views on the project had diverged rather than come to a consensus.

Iceland’s Highland to Become Europe’s Largest National Park

Iceland’s Central Highland region is set to become the largest national park in Europe, covering around 30% of Iceland. This would also make it the national park that represents the highest percentage of the total area of a country, with over 40,000 km² of the total 103,000 km² surface area of Iceland. A bill outlining the park’s establishment was introduced in Parliament by Iceland’s Minister for the Environment Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson on November 30.

“The Highland holds one of the greatest natural treasures that we Icelanders collectively possess, so it is a logical measure to establish a national park there,” stated Guðmundur Ingi. “It is quite clear that the establishment of the Highland National Park would be a huge advantage for Icelandic tourism and, in fact, for the national economy as a whole, especially during the recovery period after the coronavirus pandemic.” Guðmundur called the proposed park Iceland’s largest contribution to nature conservation, adding that it was important to preserve the highland for future generations.

Park Will Double Protected Areas in Highland

Iceland’s highland region is one of the largest unpopulated regions in Europe and an important breeding ground for birds such as pink-footed geese. Around half of the proposed area of the park is already protected, including under Vatnajökull National Park, Hofsjökull glacier, and popular hiking area Landmannalaugar. The proposed park would unite already protected areas and expand them to create a single, unified Highalnd National Park. The park is to be separated into six administrative regions to be jointly managed by municipal and state authorities. A special board will be established to oversee the park’s management, consisting of local and state representatives as well as other interested parties.

Read More: Proposed Highland National Park

Several power plants are currently within the proposed borders of the park – the bill proposes defining them as “peripheral areas” of the park and that the land they occupy not be protected. The Highland National Park is expected to have a positive impact on rural development, creating sustainable employment opportunities both for municipalities bordering the park as well as across the country.

Guðmundur Ingi oversaw the protection of the popular Geysir area and Goðafoss waterfall earlier this year.

ISK 500 Million to New Climate Fund

A new government climate fund intended to support projects in the field of climate change was officially launched today. The fund was introduced in a presentation at the Nordic House, where Environment Minister Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson addressed those attending. The fund’s starting budget amounts to ISK 140 million ($1.1 million/€1 million).

“In my opinion this is a happy day,” Guðmundur stated, adding that he hoped the fund would help make progress in the “biggest challenge of the 21st century.”

The fund is a new initiative to support innovative projects in the field of climate issues and informational and educational projects related to climate issues and the effects of climate change. The grants are intended to strengthen research and development work in connection to the implementation of new climate-friendly technologies and design solutions.

While the government’s 2019 and 2020 contributions to the fund will amount to ISK 140 million, the fund will amount to a total of ISK 500 million ($4.1 million/€3.7 million) over its first five years.

Closures Extended at Three Popular Sites Near Mývatn

The Minister for the Environment has approved a request issued by the Environment Agency of Iceland to extend closures at three popular natural attractions in the Mývatn region in North Iceland, Vísir reports. Access to Hverir geothermal area, Leirhnjúkur mountain, and Stóra-Víti crater will remain restricted until November.

The Environment Agency restricted foot traffic to these three sites on August 2 while their condition was assessed. During the initial closure, the Environment Agency also began work on elevated foot paths to facilitate future access to these areas without causing more damage to them. Two weeks since the initial closure, however, all three areas are still extremely wet and muddy, making it necessary to extend foot traffic restrictions while the ground recovers.

[media-credit name=”Umhverfisstofnun, Facebook” align=”alignnone” width=”860″][/media-credit]

The restriction of foot traffic to natural areas of interest is permitted under law 60/2013 on nature conservation, which allows for traffic to be limited or prevented entirely when an area is at risk of damage.

“If there is a significant risk of damage due to heavy traffic or because of the particularly sensitive condition of a natural area, the Environment Agency of Iceland may limit traffic or temporarily close the area in question to travelers on the recommendation of stake-holding municipalities, the Soil Conservation Service of Iceland, landowners, or on its own initiative,” reads the law. Closure or traffic restriction decisions are made in consultation with representatives of the tourism industry, as well as the aforementioned stakeholders, and can be extended with the approval of the Minister for the Environment.

‘This untouched nature needs to be spared’

Strandir wilderness

Thirty landowners from the municipality of Árneshreppur have issued a joint statement protesting three planned hydropower plants which are to be located in the remote Strandir region, RÚV reports. The group says the development will do damage to the area around the Drangajökull glacier.

The landowners’ statement was delivered to the Árneshreppur municipal council, which recently issued a preliminary construction permit that allows for road construction at and around the site of one of the three intended plants, Hvalárvirkjun, as well as the building of a bridge over the Hvalá river, worker’s facilities, and a sewage system, as well as geological surveys around the site. The letter was also sent to the Minister of Industries and Innovation, Þórdís Kolbrún R. Gylfadóttir, the Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources, Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson, and the chairs and vice-chairs of all the parties in parliament.

This is not the first protest that has been issued regarding power plant development in the region. Earlier this week, four nature conservation associations brought charges against the development permit the municipal government of Árneshreppur issued for the first phase of the Hvalárvirkjun power plant in the Westfjords. For one thing, they say, issuing a permit for this first phase of construction, ostensibly for research purposes, is an illegal way to go about obtaining a permit for the entirety of the project. The associations also take great issue with the environmental damage that they say the project will have on the surrounding area.


An “attack on the nature of Strandir”

“We the undersigned owners of properties in Árneshreppur object because the area surrounding the Drangajökull glacier will be permanently disturbed by the hydroelectric power plants…” reads the landowners’ statement.

“Along the rivers that are intended to be harnessed—the Rjúkandi, Hvalá, and Eyvindarfjarðará—there are numerous waterfalls large and small and on the health to the south of Drangajökull there are brilliant blue mountain lakes that few people have ever seen. This untouched nature needs to be spared, as do the wildernesses that form one continuous and delicate ecosystem. There will be no way to reclaim this unspoiled wilderness once it is damaged by the three hydropower stations that HS Orka and Landsvirkjun are planning for the area (Hvalárvirkjun and Skúfnavatnavirkjun, as well as Austurgilsvirkjun). We declare that we will spare no effort in halting this attack on the nature of Strandir…”


Development plants ‘anachronistic in today’s society’

“These grandiose power plant ideas are entirely anachronistic in today’s society,” the letter continues, noting that the protection of unspoiled natural areas is an increasing priority in Iceland. The landowners also contend that the power plant would do nothing to increase electricity security for Westfjord residents themselves: “The electricity will be sold to the highest bidder in the south, most likely to data centres that mine for digital currency, such as Bitcoin.”

The letter concludes by urging the addressees to “listen to those who are nearest to this danger and who want to think of the future.”

Environment Minister Meets With Climate Strike Organisers

Climate Strike Iceland

Environment Minister Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson met with organisers of the weekly climate strike last week, RÚV reports. The ongoing strike, organised by the National Union for Icelandic Students (LÍS) and the Icelandic Upper Secondary Student Union (SÍF), is meant to urge governmental action on climate issues. According to a press release from LÍS, last week’s protest drew over 200 attendees, including elementary and secondary school students, university students, and the general public.

At the meeting, the Minister and strike organisers went over the protesters’ demands, which are first and foremost immediate and more ambitious measures to fight climate change and increased budget allocation to address the issue. The Minister and organisers agreed that the government cannot solve the issue alone. The organisers, however, emphasised that the government must take the lead, as it holds legislative power.

Strike representatives have also requested to meet with Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir and Minister of Finance Bjarni Benediktsson. While Katrín has invited the group to meet with her on March 13, Bjarni Benediktsson has yet to answer the request.

The strike is inspired by Greta Thunberg whose school strikes for climate in Sweden have garnered widespread attention and led to youth protests in Belgium, Britain, the United States, Australia, and Germany. Iceland’s third weekly climate strike will be held tomorrow in Austurvöllur square between 12.00 and 1.00pm.

Report on Economic Impact of Whaling Incites Criticism

A recent report on the economic impact of whaling has incited criticism and accusations of bias, RÚV reports. A primary point of contention is that the report characterises nature conservation groups as terrorist organisations and suggests that Icelandic legislators should perhaps consider levying anti-terrorist legislation against them, as is done in other countries.

The report was co-authored by economist Oddgeir Ágúst Ottesen at the Institute of Economic Studies. Minister for the Environment Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson expressed some disbelief about the terrorist characterisation and said that it made him wonder about the authors’ personal motivations. Moreover, he says that he has some doubts about the correlations that the report draws.

Rannveig Grétarsdóttir, the CEO of whale watching company Elding and the chair of the Whale Watching Association of Iceland, leveled similar critiques earlier in the week during a current events TV program where she and Oddgeir debated the report and its claims. Rannveig didn’t mince words, calling the report one-sided propaganda.

“There is a lot of propaganda in the report,” said Rannveig, continuing by saying that its findings read like foregone conclusions. It discussed the impact of whale watching on whaling, but not the reverse, she said, and neglected to get the opinion of anyone in the whale watching industry.

“It’s very strange,” she said. “I have 40% of the whale watching in the country and am the chair of the Whale Watching Association, and no one talked to me.” Oddgeir contested this, saying that he had spoken to staff at whale watching companies.

Doesn’t have to be one or the other

Oddgeir also dismissed the claim that whaling’s low profit margin and the overall negative press earned by the industry should be taken into account when considering whether or not to allow whaling to continue.

“It doesn’t really matter for society what the [company’s] earnings are. It doesn’t hurt society as a whole that the [whaling] company pays good wages and turns a small profit,” he said, versus a scenario in which the company made substantial profits but paid low wages. Oddgeir continued by saying that tourism in Iceland had continued to flourish in spite of the fact that whaling has continued, and that whaling has has also not had an impact on the sale of Icelandic fish abroad.

Oddgeir rejected the accusation that he’d written the report with a particular agenda and had already made his mind up about the conclusions he’d draw before he even finished it. He said that it wasn’t a matter of choosing one thing over the other: “Whale watching can absolutely continue, even if there is whaling.”

False correlations

The report asserts that should whaling continue, there would be a 40% increase in Icelandic export revenue, as a result of there being more fish in the country’s coastal waters. This assertion goes far beyond what other organisations, such as the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute, have been willing to state in regards to the whaling industry’s sustainability. For instance, Gísli Víkingsson, a marine biologist at the Marine Institute, said that he believes that whaling is sustainable, but said that he thinks it’s wrong for people to kill whales in order to increase the fish stock. The claim about increased export potential also rings false to Minister for the Environment Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson.

“…I think we need to take a very close look at this part about the ecology of the ocean, where the conclusion drawn is that by hunting more whales, we increase the number of fish in the sea,” Guðmundur remarked. “[T]hey come to the conclusion that there’s a direct relationship between the two. Although there’s a connection, [the report] doesn’t take into account the costs that would result from starting to increase whaling, for example, as regards Iceland’s reputation.”