Why are there no trees in Iceland?

hekla forest project

The short answer: sheep. According to the earliest records of the settlement of Iceland, the island was forested everywhere between the highlands and the coast when the Norse first arrived. Often, these semi-historical accounts in the mediaeval sources have to be taken with a grain of salt, but this assessment has been backed up by modern science, which estimates that approximately 40% of the island was covered by birch forests prior to settlement.

Over time, the settlers cut down trees for charcoal, tools, houses, and ships. Because Iceland’s environment is relatively harsh, once trees were felled in large numbers, it was difficult for them to grow back.

Perhaps the largest impediment to reforestation, however, was sheep grazing. It has long been traditional in Iceland for farmers to let their sheep roam in highland pastures during the summer, and then to collect them in the fall. This sheep grazing caused immense damage to Icelandic forests, from which they are still recovering. To this day, most tree plantations in Iceland need to be fenced in, to prevent sheep from destroying young saplings.

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Isavia Demands Felling of 2,900 Trees in Öskjuhlíð

Perlan Öskjuhlíð haust autumn

The operator of Reykjavík Domestic Airport, Isavia, has requested that 2,900 trees in Öskjuhlíð forest be felled immediately, or 1,200 of the forest’s tallest trees, to improve flight safety. Öskjuhlíð is one of the oldest forests in Reykjavík and is on the natural heritage register. If the request is approved, it would constitute felling about one-third of the forest or at least half of its oldest and tallest trees.

Isavia sent a request to the City of Reykjavík on July 6 demanding city authorities fell trees within the approach zone to the airport from the east in order to improve flight safety. Isavia suggests two possibilities: felling all the trees within two areas of the forest, a total of 2,900 trees; or felling around 1,200 of the forest’s tallest trees.

Reykjavíkurborg. What Öskjuhlíð would look like with the 2,900 trees felled (inside the red dotted line)
Reykjavíkurborg. What Öskjuhlíð would look like with the 2,900 trees felled (inside the red dotted line).

Protected green space enjoyed by many

The forest enjoys protection both within the neighbourhood zoning plan and as a city park in the city’s master zoning plan. Öskjuhlíð is also on the natural heritage register. Felling the trees is subject to the consultation and approval of various parties, including the Icelandic Institute of Natural History.

The felling would come at a significant cost, at least ISK 500 million [$3.8 million; €3.5 million] to fell 2,900 trees. That price tag would not include the necessary landscaping of the area after the trees are cut down and removed. In 2017, around 140 trees in the forest were felled to increase flight safety. Isavia put the project out to tender and footed the bill.

Öskjuhlíð is a popular site for outdoor recreation as well as the location of Reykjavík landmark Perlan. Reykjavík University is nestled at the base of the forest and religious organisation Ásatrú has facilities in Öskjuhlíð as well, where they hold regular events. The greater Reykjavík area does not have many forests to boast of, the two main ones besides Öskjuhlíð being Heiðmörk and Elliðárdalur.

Airport location a long-standing debate

Research has shown that afforestation carried out in the greater Reykjavík area since the middle of the 20th century, including in Öskjuhlíð, has decreased the intensity of storms and reduced average windspeeds in and around the city. Instead of felling trees, some have argued that the landing route to the domestic airport from the east could be made safer by extending the runway further west. That would require extending the existing runway out over the ocean, however.

The location of Reykjavík Domestic Airport has been a hot-button issue almost as long as the airport has been around. An agreement has now been made to move it from its current location in Vatnsmýri and build a residential development in its place – but a new location for the airport is yet to be determined and its relocation remains a source of tension between the sitting government and the City of Reykjavík.

Use of Lodgepole Pine in Reforestation Sparks Feud Between Agencies

icelandic forest

The coming merger of the Icelandic Forest Service and the Soil Conservation Service has led to a debate over the use of invasive species in reforestation and land reclamation work.

Central to the debate between the two agencies is the place of the lodgepole pine, and whether it belongs in Icelandic forests.

Pinus contorta, with the common name of lodgepole pine, is a species native to the West Coast of North America. It has been introduced into Icelandic forestry in an attempt to help with the reforestation of Iceland, but some warn against negative consequences of invasive species.

Read more: Forests Now Cover 2% of Iceland


The Icelandic Forest Service, in their resolutions from the 2022 general meeting, recently condemned what they believed was a campaign against them by the Soil Conservation Service, which publicly critiqued the use of lodgepole pine in Icelandic reforestation attempts.

In their resolutions, the Icelandic Forest Service stated that “the campaign tries to discredit the ambitious and successful work that has been carried out in the most forest-deprived country in Europe and the seventh most forest-deprived country in the world, where natural forests grow on only 1.5% of the country and cultivated forests on only 0.5% of the area of the country. The cultivation of new forests is the most effective weapon in the fight against soil erosion and also one of the most cost-effective methods to reduce the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”

Read more: Lupine Propagation Threatens Nature Reserve


However, the Soil Conservation Service has rejected the suggestion that they have worked against the Icelandic Forest Service by critiquing the use of lodgepole pine.

“The Soil Conservation Service has stated that the first choice for reforestation is Icelandic birch and that local varieties should be used if available,” said Árni Bragason, director of the Soil Conservation Service,in a statement to Fréttablaðið. “Birch has grown in Iceland for thousands of years and is adapted to the conditions here. However, we also know that birch is not necessarily the best tree for all uses.”

Árni has also drawn comparisons with the lupine: “I hope that people will plan the cultivation of the lodgepole pine and its cultivation area so that we don’t repeat the same mistakes we made with the lupine.”

Lupine is a flowering plant native to Alaska and is considered an invasive species by the Icelandic Institute of Natural History. Because the lupine is a type of legume, it helps fix nitrogen into the soil and was introduced in Iceland with the hope of aiding in land reclamation. Now, lupines are estimated to cover some 314 km² of Iceland, and some conservationists fear for its impact on native flora.

Read more: Government Publishes Joint Policy on Land Reclamation and Reforestation


“Those who work in land reclamation and forestry of course must take responsibility [for the lupine]. Although we acted in good faith at the time, we did not foresee how invasive the species is,” Árni stated.

Árni said he wants to encourage Jónatan Garðarsson, chairman of the Icelandic Forest Service, to present facts instead of repeating what are, in his opinion, empty claims.

“It is good for everyone to know the facts and get out of the echo chamber […] because otherwise there is a risk that such misinformation will come to dominate the discussion.”

Árni has also stated that he has used lodgepole pine as Christmas trees in the last years.


In Post-Ice Age First, Iceland Records 30m-Tall Tree

katrin jakobsdottir icelandic forest

An Icelandic tree planted in 1949 near Kirkjubæjarklaustur was recently measured at 30.15m, making it the tallest recorded tree in Iceland since the Ice Age.

The tree in question, a sitka spruce, was given the honorary title of “tree of the year” by the Icelandic Forest Service, an award given since 1989 to trees outstanding in their fields.

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir was present for the ceremony, and even helped with the triangulation of its height.

In a speech at the ceremony, Katrín spoke to the importance of Icelandic reforestation and the role that forests must play in Iceland’s climate goals. She additionally spoke to her own personal history with the forest at Kirkjubæjarklaustur, where she has several significant memories and experiences.

In addition to the PM, several other officials were present for the ceremony, such as Jónatan Garðarsson, chairman of the Icelandic Forestry Association.




Government Publishes First-Ever Joint Policy on Land Reclamation and Reforestation

Minister of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir has released the Icelandic government’s first-ever joint policy on land reclamation and reforestation. This per a press release on the government’s website on Friday.

The plans for land reclamation and reforestation look ahead to 2031, but the primary action plan covers 2022-2026 and will shape the government’s priorities in these areas for the coming years. The action plan calls for research on the impacts of land reclamation, reforestation, and the restoration of biodiversity in the wetlands, as well as the creation of new quality criteria for reforestation land selection, and an evaluation of carbon balancing for emissions accounting. Another primary objective aims to restore the ecosystems of disturbed lands, wetlands, and both natural and newly cultivated forests.

In her capacity as Minister of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries, Svandís Svavarsdóttir’s focus is on the protection, proliferation, and integrity of Iceland’s ecosystems, reads the press release. She also seeks to promote nature-based solutions in climate matters, as well as solutions that are in line with international agreements, support sustainable land use, increase knowledge, cooperation, and public health, and promote sustainable development in rural Iceland.

“I place a lot of emphasis on food production that’s based on sustainable development, whether that’s at land or at sea,” remarked Svandís. “With this plan, land reclamation and reforestation both contribute to sustainable development of communities all around the country. There will be employment opportunities in richer natural resources and development will be built on a sustainable foundation.”

See Also: New Report Examines Food Self-Sufficiency in Five Nordic Island Societies

The policy has been prepared in accordance with recent laws on land reclamation, forests, and reforestation and outlines the government’s vision for the future in these areas, as well as its core values and attendant priorities. The policy is also guided by developments at the international level and Iceland’s international agreements with the United Nations and other global organizations.

It has been in the works since 2019, when project boards were appointed with the task of formulating proposals for both a land reclamation and a national forestry plan. The two boards presented their proposals at an open forum in spring 2021, after which, the proposals were submitted to the Ministry along with an environmental assessment and a summary of the main comments received. The full policies, both the long-term 2031 plan and the 2022-2026 action plan, are available on the government website.

Citizen Scientists Wanted to Monitor Land

GróLind, a project to monitor Iceland’s soil and vegetation resources through remote sensing data, is turning to the public for help.

Jóhann Helgi Stefánsson, environmental scientist and project manager at GróLind, has stated that the project “is an opportunity for people to monitor the land in an organized way, see the results of reforestation, see the development of vegetation and have a direct impact on the knowledge we are creating every day.”

GróLind’s land monitoring began in 2019. Among other research goals, the project investigates sheep grazing patterns, and how vegetation develops on grazed and protected lands.

Now, the project is looking for citizen volunteers to help gather further data. Volunteers will use an app, and along with some basic training, monitor small areas of land throughout the country. By using a pole provided by Landgræðslan, Iceland’s foundation for land reclamation, volunteers will mark the center of a 50m area in diameter and report the findings back to GróLind.

In combination with other systems like satellite imagery, the data will hopefully contribute to a fuller picture of land use in Iceland.

Those interested in volunteering are encouraged to watch the instructional videos provided on the Landgræðslan YouTube channel, or else to visit the GróLind website.



Forests Now Cover 2% of Iceland

Elliðárdalur Reykjavík

Forests and bushes now cover over 2% of Iceland, Vísir reports. That number may not seem like much, but since 1990, the surface area covered by forest or shrubs in Iceland has increased more than six times over – from 7,000 hectares to 45,000. In 20 years, the number is expected to be 2.6%.

The Icelandic Forestry Association (IFA) held a conference last week where the milestone was celebrated. “This is big news,” stated Arnór Snorrason, a forester at the IFA research station at Mógilsá. It’s not only forestry efforts that have increased these numbers, but also Iceland’s remaining natural birch forests, which Arnór says have finally begun expanding for the first time since Iceland was settled.

Read More: One Man Reforestation Project

As much as 40% of Iceland’s surface area was covered by forest before permanent settlers arrived in the ninth century. They chopped down wood for kindling and cleared land for grazing, and their livestock later prevented trees from growing back.

Read more about the history of reforestation in Iceland here.

One-Man Reforestation Project To Restore Pre-Settlement Woodland

For thousands of years before Iceland was settled, the majority of the country’s lowland areas and parts of the highlands were covered in birch forests. While patches of the original woodlands still exist and have grown larger following protection against grazing sheep along with warmer climate, most of the country is now famously devoid of trees and forests. Spurred on by the UN sending out a “rallying call for the protection and revival of ecosystems all around the world” in the form of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, biologist Atli Jósefsson has taken it upon himself to try to reclaim at least a small patch of the country’s ancient vegetation.

The Mosfellsheiði heath consists of what many Icelanders consider a typical rural landscape. Mossy hummocks covered with ling, interspersed with rocky areas of exposed soil. Yet even into the 18th century, patches of the original birch forest remained. Grazing livestock contributed to soil erosion in the past but these days, a portion of the area is fenced-off, keeping the offending sheep at bay. It’s here that Atli is realising his one-man mission to reclaim at least one part of the ancient birch forest.

Photo by Sigfús Sigmundsson. Many locals believe earthy hummocks and eroded soil is the natural state of the area.

Today, Atli teaches biology at Menntaskólinn við Hamrahlíð, after years of teaching physiology at the University of Iceland. While he hasn’t got decades of reforestation experience or an extensive background in birch research, Iceland’s biology and Iceland’s great outdoors have become something of a passion. “I’ve often lamented the state of the land surrounding the capital area, which is looking shabby after centuries of unsustainable land use,” he told Bændablaðið recently. “Most of the city’s inhabitants likely consider the rocky and mossy Mosfellsheiði heath, with its areas of exposed soil to be the natural state of the local vegetation. I believe we owe it to ourselves to try to regain a part of the earlier quality of the land and restore its biodiversity. As official parties haven’t done enough in this area, I decided to try and start my own mission in hopes that despite its small reach, it will inspire others to follow suit.”

Following environmental protection, formerly deforested areas have been known to regain their former vegetation. In a conversation with Iceland Review, Atli mentions Þórsmörk, an area that in the 19th century, had become all but bare of trees, and was facing soil erosion. Protected from tree felling and fenced off from grazing sheep in the 1920s, the area is now once more verdant and covered in the shrubs and the low birch trees emblematic of the local birch forests. Another example of a protected birch forest is Hafnarskógur, the birch forest at the root of Hafnarfjall, just across the fjord from Borgarnes, about an hour’s drive north of Reykjavík. This is believed to be one of the rare patches of Iceland that have been covered in birch forest since before the country’s settlement, and probably during the few thousand years since the last ice age. Scientists have found that the Hafnarskógur soil is one of the most carbon-rich soils in Iceland, which could mean that reclaiming birch forests could do its part to bind carbon in the long term.

Atli’s mission aims to reclaim the Elliðakotsheiði birch forest (the southwest part of the Mosfellsheiði heath). The land he is working on is within the capital area’s sheep-free zone, so grazing sheep won’t affect his efforts, and landowners have graciously given him permission to partially reclaim the ancient vegetation. His aim is to only spread native Icelandic species, such as downy birch, tea-leaved willow, or woolly willow, in addition to grass seeds for the rocky areas with eroded soil.

Photo by Sigfús Sigmundsson. Atli Jósefsson planting birch and willow on Mosfellsheiði

He started preparing the project in 2020 and the following spring, he got to work. “I’ve already distributed about ten shoeboxes of birch seeds, planted about 1,000 willow cuttings and 500 birch seedlings. My goal is to plant 1000 birch trees next year, but I’ll have fewer seeds as last year wasn’t a good seed-forming year for birch.”

Atli plants the birch trees in clusters, so as they grow, these trees will have started to form their own seeds within the decade and take over from Atli’s manual work. This is what has happened during reforestation projects around the Hekla volcano, intended to stop erosion from volcanic ash in future eruptions. “According to what we know,” Atli tells me, “the birch forest is generally the natural final stage of natural succession in Iceland’s lowlands. By the end of the last ice age, Iceland was at a vegetational starting point and the result of thousands of years of isolated development was a country covered in birch forests.” That is – until humans arrived. Of course, there are no guarantees, as humans always affect their surroundings, both directly and indirectly, but it’s possible that if left alone for a few centuries, the birch forest would return on its own. “I’m helping things along a little quicker,” Atli says.

Photo by Guðrún Jónsdóttir. Birch seeds from Hafnarskógur forest





Icelanders Buying More Locally-Grown Christmas Trees

Christmas tree santa Iceland

Though imported trees still make up the majority of Christmas tree sales in Iceland, locally grown trees are steadily growing in popularity, Bændablaðið reports. Imported Christmas trees decreased from 37,147 to 24,441 between 2019 and 2020, while local tree sales rose from 7,225 to 8,134. More families are buying their trees from local forestry associations, where they can pick and even cut down their own trees.

Ragnhildur Freysteinsdóttir, an environmental scientist at the Icelandic Forestry Association, told RÚV that cutting down your own tree has certain advantages. “Some people may want tall and thin, or short and fat [trees]. They maybe don’t want the totally standard trees that you get at the store. So it’s an opportunity for them.”

Buying local has benefits

As Bændablaðið points out, the benefits of buying local Christmas trees are many. Purchasing one tree enables local foresters to plant dozens more, with a net positive effect on carbon storage. The Reykjavík Forestry Association (Skógræktarfélag Reykjavíkur), for example, planted 50 trees for each one sold last year. Local trees also carry a smaller carbon footprint in other ways: due to Iceland’s climate and geography, local foresters rarely use pesticides in their cultivation. Furthermore, imported trees present a risk of bringing in pests that could potentially affect Icelandic vegetation.

See Also: Húsavík Residents Vote on Town Christmas Tree

Among local trees, the most popular species is the beach pine, accounting for 62.4% of local Christmas tree sales last year. The sitka spruce comes next with 14.3% of sales, followed by red spruce at 11.4%.

Icelandic National Church to Neutralise Carbon Emissions

Bishop of Iceland Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir.

The Church Council of Iceland’s National Church has approved an extensive environmental action plan proposed at a synod (clergy conference) earlier this year, Vísir reports. The plan includes forestry and wetland restoration as well as installation of electric vehicle charging stations on church lands. Clergy also seconded the Icelandic Environmental Association’s call for the government to declare a climate emergency.

The Church Council will now organise an evaluation of which land in its ownership is suitable for large-scale forestry and wetland restoration. These carbon-binding projects are a step toward carbon-neutralising emission from transportation related to church work within the next three years. The Council also agreed to install charging stations for electric vehicles at four locations this year: two in Reykjavík; one in Skálholt, South Iceland; and one in Hólar, North Iceland. Parishes will be encouraged to install charging stations, and others will be installed at vicarages according to demand.

Clergy are also urging airline companies and tour operators that sell flights to and from Iceland to include an option for carbon offsetting trips in the ticket-buying procedure.