Desertification in Iceland?

20 Dec 2017

What comes to your mind when you think about Iceland? “The land of fire and ice”, might a lot of people answer, “Cute puffins, Vikings, the Icelandic horse, more sheep than people?..”. But you would certainly not associate Iceland with forests.

While traveling in different landscapes I always try to compare them to each other and find properties that make them unique. What I always found unique about the Icelandic landscape is the endless view that you get almost everywhere. Where is this endless view coming from? Probably, from the lack of forests.

Nowadays only 2% of Iceland’s area is covered by forests. This is much less than for example in Germany, where about 32% of the overall area is covered by trees. One might think this is due to the climate: too cold, too harsh weather conditions that prevent the trees from growing. But Iceland’s landscape didn’t always look like this! Before the Vikings settled Iceland, between 25% – 40% of the country has been covered by trees.

And here we come back to the Vikings, the horses and the sheep. When the Vikings arrived on the island, they started using the forest. They used it for heating, for building their houses and they needed land for grazing. Because of constant grazing pressure by sheep, the forest never had time to recover. That’s why Iceland’s landscape looks today as it does.

But okay, it still looks nice… those endless views.., “so where is the problem?”, you might ask. The problem lays in desertification, in soil erosion. Desertification in northern Europe? Desertification sounds more like a problem of countries with a lack of rainfall. I couldn’t say that I noted any lack of rain during my travels in Iceland. And I guess the fact that the Icelandic language has more than 24 different words to talk about rain, speaks for itself.

The problem is, that in huge parts of the country there is no vegetation left to prevent the soil from eroding or to store the water in the ground. One way to prevent erosion is to bring back the trees to the country as they hold the soil together with their roots and break the wind. Therefore, one project which is supported by the Icelandic government is “afforestation”. The national forest strategy aims to cover 12% of the area with forest by 2100.

The main difficulty here is: which tree species should be used? If only native species should be used or also non-native ones that could be more productive and also boost the timber industry in Iceland. This is highly debated. The main aim is to use provenances of species that can cope with altered climatic conditions due to climate change. The Icelandic Forest Service together with the European Forest Genetic Resources Programme (EUFORGEN) work on a project to grow seedlings locally in order to gain genetically well-adapted provenances that will form resilient and well growing forests. Read more about this project, which was introduced during a Landscapes Talk at the GLF Global Event in Bonn.

However, while traveling around the country, several times I saw patches of planted forest monocultures that look like abstract drawings in the landscape. They don’t fit very well into the picture. But in my opinion, this is a very important factor that shouldn’t be forgotten: the picture of the typical landscape that not only tourists but also, and much more importantly, the Icelanders themselves know and consider as beautiful.

The artificial shape of those planted forests in Iceland is apparently due to the fact, that they must be fenced to be protected from being eaten by the free running sheep all over the country. One solution therefore might be to protect rather single plants than the whole stand. Another possible solution is to experiment with planting patterns inside the fence and rather use circle than line structures to get away from the straight, soldier-like array.

Another way how to fit planted forests better into the landscape is to use different tree species. While focusing on the genetic diversity and genetically well-adapted provenances to gain resilient and well-growing forest stands, the species diversity within one stand shouldn’t be forgotten! Species diversity can help to fulfill those same aims while integrating the landscape aesthetics aspect.

Landscapes change with the impact that people have on them and they can be seen as a cultural heritage. It is what people relate to their homes. To combine both, the value of a certain aesthetic of a landscape and ecological reasonable and necessary measures, is a challenge but a very interesting one!

Blogpost and picture by Franziska Wenger – #GLFBonn2017 Social Reporter –  franzi.wenger(at)

This post is part of the live coverage during the GLF Bonn 2017 Global event. This post is written by one of our social reporters, and represents the author’s views only.

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