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Photo: Golli. A collection of waterfalls in Borgarfjörður.

Conservation in Iceland

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How much emphasis is there on nature conservation in Iceland? Where are the protected natural sites, and what are their biggest threats? Read on to learn all there is to know about caring for and protecting Icelandic nature. 

Everyone knows that Iceland is renowned for its breathtaking nature. This largely untamed island boasts all manner of exciting spectacles, be they gushing waterfalls, exploding hot springs, or dazzling Northern Lights displays

Best of all, these phenomena occur all the time, regardless of whether anyone is there to see it or not. Mother Nature and her blessings. 

Still, there are many determined to see for themselves what Iceland has to offer, and they are more than welcomed by the Icelandic people. 

Northern Lights over an Icelandic church
Photo: Golli. Auroras above a church in Iceland

The simple fact is, when provided with unique experiences, most people are overcome with the desire to protect and nurture. 

This is not only to appreciate what’s before them in the moment, but also so that future generations might enjoy the same vistas and experiences. 

With all this in mind, one would surely expect Iceland’s population to regard nature conservation as of the most paramount importance. And, indeed, the evidence does seem apparent. 

Guests will find a busy recycling centre in the Grandi district, called Sorpa. There are also plenty of rentable e-scooters that make getting around the city cleaner than alternatives, and the sight of electric vehicles is not at all uncommon.  

In short, efforts are being made when it comes to natural conservation, combatting waste, and cutting back on carbon emissions. But these waters are murky, and the situation is far more complex than many visitors at first realise. 

Table of Contents

Why does Iceland have a reputation for sustainability? 

Photo: Golli. Even when there’s no active eruption, the geothermal heat underneath Reykjanes is unmistakeable.

Iceland is considered by many to be one of the greenest, most sustainable nations on the planet. Given its wealth of geothermal energy – and the dramatic, widely-shared images captured here for social media – its all too easy to see why words like oasis come to mind. 

Certainly, this image is strengthened by the geothermal energy that is utilised to power much of the country’s infrastructure. In fact, some statistics cite that 99% of Iceland’s energy is renewable in some form or another.

That would largely be on account of its hydropower plants. While this might sound all well and good on the surface, many fail to realise that this heavy industry covers vast swathes of land. That is habitat lost forever, and plans to build more plants in untouched locations like the Westfjords are a present concern. 

The biggest geothermal power stations in Iceland are: Hellisheiði Power Station (303 MW), Nesjavellir Geothermal Power Station (120 MW), Reykjanes Power Station (100 MW), Svartsengi Power Station (76.5 MW), Krafla Power Station (60 MW), and Þeistareykir Power Station (45 MW). 

svartsengi power plant reykjanes
Photo: Golli. Blue Lagoon & Svartsengi Power Station

Driving around the country, it is very likely you’ll happen upon one of these centres of industry. Keep a look out for pillars of rising white steam, and the musky scent of sulphur in the air. It might give you pause to reflect on the pros and cons of generating electricity in this manner. 

Iceland’s Emphasis on Fresh Food 

Many visitors also cannot help but comment on how chemical-free Icelandic produce is, be that lamb or fish. Most restaurants and supermarkets choose to purchase local, helping to maintain the balance between healthy foods, and cutting down on any carbon-emissions resulting from its transport. 

This model is not perfect, by any means. Fish-farming is one area of contention between the population and the politicians, with the former being staunchly against. But it has created a food-market that is far healthier, and more sustainable, than many places elsewhere. 

A man enjoying a picnic by a waterfall.
Photo: Berglind. A man enjoying a picnic by a waterfall.

Also, you may have heard; Iceland’s tap water boasts crystalline purity. That purity actually comes from the fact that that same water has travelled from glaciers, filtering through mineral-rich volcanic rock in the process. 

If you are so inclined, it is, in theory, healthy enough to drink freely from rivers and streams in Iceland. This can be welcome relief for hikers running low in the bottle. However, it should not be recommended exactly, on account that Iceland’s wildlife might, in one form or another, find themselves in that water at some point. 

You get what we are alluding to. Water from the tap will suffice for most of us. 

With that said, visitors will likely notice that far too many shops here sell bottled water. For the reasons mentioned, this is completely unnecessary and does little more than contribute more plastic-waste to a world already overburdened by it.

Ultimately, water is so cheap in Iceland that the locals have garnered a reputation as shower-hogs. Make of that what you will, but at least their personal hygiene and cleanliness can be considered world-class, by any standard.  

But is Iceland really as green as it seems?   

Photo: Golli. Þingvellir National Park

Unfortunately, conservation efforts in Iceland are not always as idyllic and organised as they may appear. The major reason for that is that the reality of a tourism-driven economy brings with it a strange paradox. 

It is Iceland’s landscapes that attract visitors. Yet those same visitors pose the greatest threat. It might be in the form of driving off-road, littering, or leaving footprints in the delicate moss that covers much of the landscape. 

But blame cannot, and should not, be placed solely at the feet of our guests. 

The World Wildlife Federation (WWF) ranks Iceland as a C+ for sustainability in so far as its responsibilities to the Arctic Council, a rather pitiful score given the illusory image that Icelanders and their environment live in utopian harmony. 

Its major criticisms are that the government has failed to codify bio-diversity objectives into its Arctic Policy. This is without mentioning its historic flirtations with accumulating hydrocarbons off-shore – that’s drilling for crude oil, to most of us.  

More work needs to be done to ensure Iceland’s nature remains protected for years to come, both on land and at sea. For example, many sites that are becoming more and more popular with tourists still lack amenities such as rubbish bins or bathrooms. 

President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson and members of the Nature Club
Photo: Mummi Lú. President of Iceland Guðni Th. Jóhannesson and members of the Nature Club picking up litter

On the flip side of the coin, further efforts must be made to educate visitors as to why respecting Iceland’s nature is so important. 

Remember, Iceland has a tiny population of less than 400,000 people. Accepting millions of people into the country every year requires an almost unwritten cooperation between locals and visitors. 

To give you some more insights into how best you can behave, make sure to read our feature article: Do’s and Don’ts When Visiting Iceland

What are the greatest threats facing Iceland’s nature? 

Planting trees
Photo: Sigfús Sigmundsson. Atli Jósefsson planting birch and willow on Mosfellsheiði

None of this is meant to sound accusatory, understand. There are more pressing matters than tourism that threaten this country’s unique ecosystems. 

Soil erosion is one the biggest issues facing Iceland’s environment today. It means that only a thin layer of soil is available to grow plants, which then hampers habitat growth. This is one of the major reasons why driving off road in Iceland is banned, and rule-breakers can expect hefty fines. 

Photo: Dagmar Trodler. Off-road driving causes untold damage to the environment

Unfortunately, the danger does not end there.  

Iceland is one of the many locations on the planet where the effects of climate change are readily apparent. 

At first glance, it might appear as though the country’s glaciers are as enormous as ever, but a little more research quickly reveals that they are receding at an alarming rate. 

In fact, this island has already lost one of its ice caps, Okjökull, which was formally declared dead in 2014. It means that conservation in Iceland has never been so important as it is right now. 

Which areas in Iceland are protected?

Jökulsárlón lake
Photo: Golli. Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon.

There are three national parks in Iceland – Þingvellir, Snæfellsjökull, and Vatnajökull.

As one might expect, these regions are protected because of their unique geology, flora, and fauna, as well as for holding an important or historic role in the nation’s development. 

Take Þingvellir, for example. Not only is it positioned atop the Mid-Atlantic Rift, where visitors can actually see the exposed walls of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, but it is also where Iceland’s – and the world’s – first democratically-elected parliament was held.

It is not just natural parks that fall under the remit of protected spaces. In fact, there are over 120 protected sites in Iceland, ranging from Hornstrandir cliffs in the Westfjords to Grótta lighthouse in the southwest.

You can find the full list of protected areas in Iceland on the Environment Agency homepage. 

What organisations focus on conservation in Iceland? 

Photo: Golli. Seljalandsfoss on the South Coast

Iceland has held membership within the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) since 1964. 

The aim of this well-respected international body is to recognise areas that provide inherent value for humanity. These sites can be either natural or cultural in origin. 

Currently, there are three UNESCO sites in Iceland; Þingvellir National Park, Vatnajokull National Park, and Surtsey Island. 

Westman Islands Vestmannaeyjar
Photo: Golli. The Westman Islands and mainland Iceland seen from Surtsey

All conservation efforts in Iceland operate under a single organisation called Náttúruverndarsamtök Íslands, known to English-speakers as Iceland Nature Conservation Association

To help break down what often feels to be an insurmountable task, their areas of focus are split into the following groups: country parks, national monuments, nature reserves, species and habitat, and natural parks. 

There are currently plans in the work to found a national park in the Icelandic Central Highlands, providing that otherworldly, isolated patch of wilderness some much needed protection. 

A storm on the horizon
Photo: Dagmar Trodler. Iceland sees ample rainfall throughout the year, maintaining fresh habitats for numerous species.

Iceland heads towards an uncertain future… 

In conclusion, Iceland’s commitment to conservation is sometimes inspiring, sometimes wayward. But more than ever, it is essential. 

Their dedication to preserving natural landscapes and diverse wildlife highlights a deep respect for the environment among those who call this place home.

By protecting vast areas of wilderness and employing protective measures where necessary, the Icelandic people will hopefully ensure that future generations can continue to enjoy its pristine beauty.

And always remember that we visitors have a responsibility to support these efforts. That means treading lightly, respecting the unique and delicate natural wonders that make Iceland truly unique. 

With hard work and a little luck, we can help safeguard this incredible island for years to come.

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