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.

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.

Icelandic Birch Forests Threatened by Imported Pests

Birch trees in Borgarfjörður, West Iceland

Experts at the Icelandic Forest Service say unclear timber import regulations threaten local birch forests. Imported timber, especially timber that contains bark, may carry insects or pests that are not native to Iceland and could harm or kill Icelandic birch trees.

RÚV reports that an Icelandic company recently imported tree trunks from Poland with the bark still attached. The Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority ordered the wood be destroyed or sent back, but the Food and Agriculture Ministry reversed the ruling after it was appealed by the importer. Experts at the Icelandic Forest Service say tree trunks with bark are more likely to carry invasive species and call for stricter regulations on their import.

“Imports probably pose the biggest risk. We import Christmas trees on a large scale every year and all kinds of growth in soil, which is imported with some residue. And we never know what it may be hiding, despite being certified and what that entails,” says Pétur Halldórsson, the Forestry Service’s director of publicity.

Downy birch (Betula pubescens) is the only tree species that naturally forms forests in Iceland. There are few native pests in Iceland, and experts say that local plants could therefore be particularly vulnerable to the arrival of invasive species. Bark beetles, for example, have done significant damage to forests in mainland Europe in recent years and if imported to Iceland, could hurt local birch forests. The beetles breed between the bark and the wood of various tree species, and their larvae feed on living tissues below the bark of the tree, leading to the death of the tree if enough larvae are present. Their presence can also make trees more susceptible to fungal infestation.

“We have gotten two bad pests on birch in the last few years and these pests have no natural predators as of yet,” stated Pétur. “So things are happening and we don’t want worse things to happen.”

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Six Million Plants This Year, But Production Still Short of Carbon Neutrality Goal

Iceland needs to rapidly increase its plant cultivation in order to meet the government’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2040, RÚV reports.

Þröstur Eysteinsson, director of the Icelandic Forest Service, says that in order to meet the goal, plant production in Iceland will have to at least double over the next three to five years, and that production capacity will need to increase even more after that. Currently, there is not enough room in local nurseries and greenhouses to meet this demand.

“As the situation stands, our greenhouses are at full capacity,” Þröstur explained in an interview. “Because it’s May, the spring sowing has already been planned out and it isn’t possible to add anything that will be ready in spring 2023, that is to say, next spring. So for any new projects that are coming in, the earliest they could get plants is 2024.”

The Forest Service intends to deliver six million plants this year, says Þröstur, which is equivalent to pre-crash levels of production. “It was around five million last year, and four million the year before that. This is a rapid increase. Then we need seven to eight million next year, which we may not manage, and ten to twelve in 2025.”

Iceland’s Forests Could Double in Size in the Next Two Decades

forestry forest tree

If Iceland sticks to its plans to reach carbon neutrality by 2040, it will double its forest cover in the next two decades, RÚV reports. Forests cover just 2% of the country’s surface area today. Hreinn Óskarsson of the Icelandic Forest Service says afforestation can be an emotional issue for Icelanders, who are attached to the landscape in its current form.

Forests currently cover around 2% of Iceland’s total surface area, equivalent to around half of the Reykjanes peninsula. Glaciers, in comparison, cover around 10%. When humans first settled permanently in Iceland in the 9th century, forests covered somewhere between 25-40% of the island, but most of them were cleared to make room for sheep and cattle, whose grazing prevented the forests from growing back. The Icelandic Forest Service (IFS) was founded in 1908 but it wasn’t until the 1950s that large-scale afforestation began in the country.

Read More: Bringing Back Iceland’s Forests

The forests planted in Iceland more than half a century ago are now producing usable wood, comparable in quality to wood imported from abroad. Earlier this month, a new 100-metre pedestrian (and horse) bridge across Iceland’s Þjórsá river was unveiled, built entirely from Icelandic timber. It is the first project of its kind. Trausti Jóhansson, a forest warden in South Iceland, stated he is proud that forestry has reached this point in Iceland. There is growing demand for Icelandic timber, according to Trausti, and more parties getting involved in production. “We’re always developing Icelandic timber further and further.”

Four Thousand Seedlings Planted in ‘New Year’s Forest’

Members of ICE-SAR and the Icelandic Forestry Association planted 4,000 tree seedlings on Wednesday as part of the Áramótaskógur (‘New Year’s Forest’) on Selfjall mountain just outside of Kópavogur in the capital area, RÚV reports.

Slysavarnafélagið Landsbjörg, Facebook

The seedlings were sold as part of annual fundraising efforts for ICE-SAR, Iceland’s volunteer-staffed search and rescue association. Traditionally, ICE-SAR has sold New Year’s fireworks to raise money for its efforts. However, concerns about the environmental impact of Iceland’s New Year’s fireworks extravaganza have led, in recent years, to New Year’s seedlings being sold as well. ICE-SAR currently has a contract in place with the forestry association to sell New Year’s seedlings through 2023.

Read More: Tree Seedlings to Supplement Firework Sales Over Next 3 Years

Eight thousand seedlings were sold as part of the most recent New Year’s fundraiser and will be planted all over the country.

Forest Service Recommends Hugging Trees While You Can’t Hug Others

The Icelandic Forestry Service is encouraging people to hug trees while social distancing measures prevent them from hugging other people, RÚV reports. Forest rangers in the Hallormsstaður National Forest in East Iceland have been diligently clearing snow-covered paths to ensure that locals can enjoy the great outdoors without coming in too close a contact with other guests, but can also get up close and personal with their forest friends.

“When you hug [a tree], you feel it first in your toes and then up your legs and into your chest and then up into your head,” enthuses forest ranger Þór Þorfinnsson. “It’s such a wonderful feeling of relaxation and then you’re ready for a new day and new challenges.”

“Viktor and a poplar” via skogur.is

In a time when close contact and embracing is discouraged for risk of COVID-19 infection, trees can offer a sense of comfort, says Þór, although he urges visitors to the national forest to take precautions not to all hug the same tree. He recommends that people walk deeper into the forest, rather than stopping at the first tree they encounter. “There are plenty of trees…it doesn’t have to be big and stout, it can be any size.”

People should take their time, Þór says, to reap the full benefits of their tree-hugging. “Five minutes is really good, if you can give yourself five minutes of your day to hug [a tree], that’s definitely enough,” he says. “You can also do it many times a day – that wouldn’t hurt. But once a day will definitely do the trick, even for just a few days.”

via skogur.is

Rangers have marked out intervals of two metres within the forest so that visitors are able to enjoy nature without fear of getting too close to one another. “It’s recommended that people get outdoors during this horrible time,” says Bergrún Anna Þórsteinsdóttir, an assistant forest ranger at Hallormsstaður. “Why not enjoy the forest and hug a tree and get some energy from this place?”

When you find the right tree, Þór has further recommendations for getting the most out of your embrace. “It’s also really nice to close your eyes while you’re hugging a tree,” he says. “I lean my cheek up against the trunk and feel the warmth and the currents flowing from the tree and into me. You can really feel it.”

Planted 10,000 Trees to Offset Carbon Emissions

tree planting

Last Saturday Iceland Music organised a day of tree-planting at Hekluskógar forest in order to offset carbon emissions generated both from company travel and the Icelandic music industry at large. It was the first such event organised by the company, which has a second planned for June 1.

Around 50 volunteers took part in the May 11 planting session, planting 10,000 birch trees in the area near Sultartangi Hydropower Station over the course of four hours, at a rate of almost one tree per minute per volunteer. The planting was a contribution to the Hekla Forest Project, the largest reforestation project of its kind in Europe. The main objective of the Hekla Forest Project is to reclaim woodlands of native birch and willow to reduce wind erosion and prevent volcanic ash from blowing over nearby areas after eruptions from active volcano Hekla.

[media-credit name=”ÚTÓN” align=”alignnone” width=”1024″]tree planting[/media-credit]

“Iceland Music takes a socially responsible stance in fighting global climate change,” a press release from the organisation states. “The impact of climate change can be seen in the changing of Icelandic seasons, weather patterns, and glacial retreat. Over a 30-year period, efforts from Saturday’s tree-planting event will sequester ten times Iceland Music’s carbon emissions from 2018. This will make Iceland Music’s 2018 year carbon-negative.”

Iceland Music will hold a second tree-planting session on June 1, with the aim of planting a further 10,000 trees. There is no cost to participate. Registration is open to all and can be found at http://bit.ly/PlontumTrjam, with priority given to Icelandic musicians.