Reshuffling of Environmental Agencies Merges Ten into Three

Foreign Minister Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarsson.

Plans to reorganize ten agencies in environment, energy, and climate into three were announced today by the government.

The plans were first discussed yesterday at a meeting where Minister of the Environment, Energy, and Climate Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarsson. He highlighted the need to have fewer, stronger agencies to streamline regulations, while also highlighting the benefits of institutional knowledge that will allow employees to work in and move between what were previously different agencies.

Under the new organization, environmental regulations in Iceland will be split between the Nature Conservation and Heritage Foundation, the Institute for Environmental Sciences, and the Climate Agency.

environment iceland
Stjórnarráð Íslands

Under the new schema, the Nature Conservation and Heritage Foundation would combine Vatnajökull National Park, Þingvellir National Park, and the Nature Conservation Department of the Environmental Agency. The new Institute for Environmental Sciences will bring together the Meteorological Office, the Icelandic Institute of Natural History, the Icelandic Land Survey, Iceland GeoSurvey, and the Natural Research Centre at Mývatn. The new Climate Agency will then comprise of the National Energy Authority and all departments of the Environmental Agency outside of Nature Conservation.

The new structure will hopefully bring greater flexibility to energy and environmental policy in Iceland, with projects now more easily transferred between formerly separate agencies.

While final details of the new structure have not yet been decided, minister Guðlaugur also announced that they will prioritize job creation in rural areas, and involve the municipalities as much as possible in the decision-making process.

In the announcement, the minister stated: “the main goal is to strengthen the institutions of the ministry to deal with the enormous challenges that await us as a society, where climate issues are at the top of the list. With the new institutional structure, the aim is to increase efficiency and reduce waste resulting from redundancy and lack of cooperation. There is also great scope for increasing the number of jobs in rural areas, and creating more desirable workplaces.”

The reorganization will affect approximately 600 employees in various agencies, some 61% of which are in the capital region.

 

 

 

Fourteen People Rescued from Glacier in Massive, 24-Hour ICE-SAR Operation

Fourteen hikers are cold and shaken but thankfully safe after being rescued from Mt. Hvannadalshnjúkur in Vatnajökull National Park on Friday. The operation, which took almost 24 hours from the time of call-out, is one of the most extensive rescue missions to have been undertaken in recent history. All total, the rescue was conducted by 140 ICE-SAR volunteers, hailing from across South Iceland and even further afield. RÚV and Vísir reported.

A group of twelve Polish women and two Icelandic tour guides began their hike up Hvannadalshnjúkur around 3:00 AM on Thursday morning. Hvannadalshnjúkur is the highest peak of the Öræfajökull volcanic glacier. The group planned to reach the 2,109-m [6,921-ft] summit around noon on Thursday and then make their way back down. During their descent, however, their GPS broke, and unable to continue, they called Search and Rescue for help around 4:00 PM on Thursday.

Björgunarfélag Hornafjarðar, FB

Group took shelter in two tents at 1,800 metres

“The first information we got from them, it looked like it would be pretty easy, even though nothing’s easy up there,” explained Jens Olsen, vice-chair of the Hornafjörður ICE-SAR team. A team of rescuers on snowmobiles reached the group around 11:00 PM that night. “That’s when it started looking like it was going to be pretty complicated.”

“The temperature was just around freezing, it was raining, sleeting, snowing. So the conditions weren’t good and the visibility was basically nill,” continued Jens. “We decided to stay put and give them something to munch on and drink and then wait for more snowmobiles. They were just up on the glacier in the caldera at an altitude of 1,800-metres [5,905-ft] in two tents.”

Björgunarfélag Hornafjarðar, FB

Rescue took nearly 24 hours

Transporting 14 people down a glacier is no simple task, of course, and getting the whole party down the mountain was time-consuming and arduous. The first hikers started being transported down the mountain to Höfn í Hornafjörður around 5:00 AM on Friday; the last hikers made it to town at 3:00 PM that afternoon—nearly 24 hours after they made their emergency call. A crisis shelter had been set up and was waiting to receive them.

Jens’ colleague, Sigfinnur Mar Þrúðmarsson described the harrowing process of getting down the glacier. Due to low visibility and worsening conditions, it took rescuers almost eight hours to reach the hikers in the first place, and then it took six hours for them to make it back down. “Nearly all the way there we had maybe ten, fifteen metres [32-49 ft] of visibility. So if the closest car got too far ahead, you actually lost it. It was really wet snow and then on the way back, it had snowed a ton and people really had their hands full finding their way home.”

Considering what they’d been through, the hikers were all doing relatively well by the time they’d made it safely down the mountain, but Jens said the situation was verging on “critical” when the group was first found by ICE-SAR on Thursday afternoon. “I don’t think they could have stayed there much longer and everyone’s glad that it went so well. It could have been much worse.”

Proposal for Expanded Highland Protections Protested

Energy companies and some local municipalities are hotly contesting a new proposal to expand environmental protections within the Icelandic highlands, RÚV reports. Per a proposal put forth by the Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources, a new and expanded national park would include Vatnajökull National Park – already the largest national park in Western Europe – as well as 85% of the central highlands.

The boundaries for the new national park were suggested by a bipartisan committee appointed by the ministry in April 2018. The committee, which included MPs from all of the sitting parties in Alþingi as well as representatives from the Icelandic Association of Local Authorities, maintains that expanding the boundaries of the protected area would not negatively impact Vatnajökull National Park’s recent designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The proposal has since been opened for public comment, but will only remain so for the next two weeks, or until August 13.

Although the Association of Local Authorities has been part of the proposal process, however, many municipalities whose boundaries fall within the proposed national park feel that they were not appropriately consulted.

Ásta Stefánsdóttir, head of the district council of Bláskógabyggð in West Iceland says that it was the committee’s job to make proposals about the new national park, not to specifically evaluate the pros and cons of whether this should be done at all. Bláskógabyggð feels that this evaluation has yet to be done and that the current proposal represents an encroachment on the zoning power of local municipalities.

“There are large areas within the highlands that are within Bláskógabyggð and farmers and residents have put a lot of work into reclaiming the land, for instance, in marking riding trails and guiding traffic there, i.e. ensuring that people don’t enter sensitive areas and the like. People are only concerned because if there is some kind of centralised agency, some kind of government agency, which oversees this, that that will somewhat undercut all this volunteer work that people have done.”

Energy companies have also expressed opposition to the proposal. Samorka, the federation of energy and utility companies in Iceland, says that under the new protections, that all new energy generation and transmission would be prohibited in almost half of the country, making current laws about energy protection irrelevant.

For its part, Landsvirkjun, the National Power Company of Iceland, says that it is necessary that all of its power plants remain outside of protected areas and says that the utilisation of energy resources in the highlands have considerable economic significance for the country overall. The renewable energy produced in the highlands, it says, is the foundation of the nation’s economy and overall quality of life today.

Vatnajökull National Park Approved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Vatnajökull national park has been approved to the UNESCO World Heritage List. The Ministry of Education, Science and Culture along with the Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources revealed this today. Vatnajökull national park becomes the third site in Iceland to feature on the World Heritage List following Þingvellir national park in 2004 and volcanic island Surtsey in 2008.

The decision to add Vatnajökull national park to the list was made earlier today by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in Baku, Azerbaijan. The decision was made on the basis that the national park features unique nature which is invaluable for mankind, and should be part of our legacy. Vatnajökull national park has now been placed in a group with national parks such as Yellowstone National Park in the United States, Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia, and the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador, to name a few.

Area of unique natural beauty
Vatnajökull national park covers 14% of Iceland’s surface area, 14,701 square kilometres in total. Largely covered by the Vatnajökull glacier, which is the largest ice cap in Iceland, it is also an active geological area featuring lava fields. The glacier itself became part of the Vatnajökull national park in 2008. Iceland’s highest peak, Hvannadalshnjúkur, is 2109.6 metres high and sits in the southern part of the glacier. The area features natural phenomena such as the Askja caldera, the ‘queen of Icelandic mountains’ Herðubreið, Dettifoss waterfall, Ásbyrgi glacial canyon, as well as Hljóðaklettar rock formation in the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon.

The application for the Vatnajökull national park to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage List has been in the works since 2016. The Icelandic government delivered a suggestion for the park to be added to the list in January 2018. Since then, the World Heritage Committee has inspected the merits of the park with the assistance of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The IUCN values suggested sites using factors such as world heritage value, authenticity, integrity, along with the status of protection.

Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson commented on the matter. “The nature in the area which has now been approved is magnificent – with fantasy like lava formations, black sands, rare oases of fauna, vast areas like none others, remnants of incredible cataclysmic floods, and glaciers which store incredible history and reflect the climate crisis at the same time. It is very unusual for such a large part of a country to be put on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It is truly a happy day.”

[media-credit name=”Vatnajokull National Park” align=”alignnone” width=”563″][/media-credit]
Map of the national park. The blue lines indicate the park area. Red lines indicate no-go zones for vehicles, while special protection rules apply for the purple zones. For further information, head to https://www.vatnajokulsthjodgardur.is/en

Vatnajökull National Park Now Largest in Western Europe

The Vatnajökull National Park is being expanded by 560 sq km (216 sq mi), Vísir reports. The entire park now covers some 14,700 sq km (5,700 sq mi) or nearly 15% of Iceland’s total land area, making it the largest national park in Western Europe.

The boundaries of the park have now extended to include the Herðubreið Reserve. Established in 1974, the reserve was named for what is colloquially recognised as “the queen of Icelandic mountains.” Mt. Herðubreið is a 1,682m (5,518ft)-tall tuya, or flat-topped, steep-sided volcano (not active since the Pleistocene era), located in the northeastern highlands, not far from the Askja volcano. The Herðubreið Reserve also includes other impressive “nature pearls,” such as the Ódaðahraun desert, known for its “unusual geological formations, sands, and broad lava fields that have been formed by various volcanic sources during different periods.”

In January, an application was formally submitted to have Vatnajökull National Park added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, which already includes the Þingvellir National Park and the island of Surtsey. Should the application be approved, the UNESCO World Heritage designation will also apply to the expanded area of the park, i.e. the former Herðubreið Reserve. A response on the application is expected by July 5.

The expansion of Vatnajökull National Park is, “…an important step in nature conservation,” remarked Minister of the Environment Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson. “With this, 0.5% of Iceland will now be part of the national park, including unique geological formations, natural spring areas, vast highlands, and then, of course, the queen of Icelandic mountains, Herðubreið… Not a bad gift for the 75th birthday of the Republic.”

Closure at Dettifoss

The area around Dettifoss waterfall in Vatnajökull National Park has been closed off from traffic due to flooding, according to a post on the park’s Facebook page. Thawing of ice and snow in the area have caused excessive water flow, which has now cowered road 862 that leads to the waterfall.

Furthermore a river of freshwater has formed under the snow in Sanddalur, which can create conditions life-threatening to passerby. Due to this, the area’s park ranger in cooperation with local police and The Road and Coastal Administration has decided to temporarily restrict traffic in the area.

It is unclear how long the closure will last, but back in 2016, similar conditions caused closures for up to 36 hours.

Motorcyclists Fined for Off-Roading in National Park

Four French tourists were fined a combined ISK 400,000 [$3,575; €3,092], after driving their 4WD-equipped motorcycles off-road within the Vatnajökull National Park on Friday, RÚV reports.

The incident took place not far from the Herðubreið tuya volcano in the highlands, to the east of the Askja caldera; the motorcycles left deep tire tracks in their wake. After being detained by Vatnajökull National Park rangers, the tourists owned up to their offense. According to an announcement posted about the incident on Facebook by authorities in Northeast Iceland, the tourists were asked to report to the police station in Akureyri two days later, which they did. They were then each fined ISK 100,000 each.

Illegal off-road driving is becoming an increasing problem in Iceland. There were, for instance, ten off-road driving citations issued between early June and mid-July this year, and, most recently, a group of 25 tourists were fined ISK 1.4 million [$13,000;€11,000] for off-road driving by Jökulsá river and in a protected area by Grafalönd on the road to Askja caldera—not far from where the French tourists were detained on Friday.

The increasing frequency of these incidents has lead some to call for the implementation of a new highlands driving permit, while others—such as Stefanía Ragnarsdóttir, a Vatnajökull National Park ranger—says it should be possible to better inform travellers of driving laws and their environmental responsibility. “I mean we are living on an island,” she remarked after the incident with the 25 tourists in late August. “You come here by boat or plane so it should be possible to reach you and this is a lot of responsibility that we need to take on much better. This maybe lies most with car rental companies. They need to really step up.”