Vikings Cleared the Forests, Now Iceland Is Bringing Them Back

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Before the first settlers arrived, forests covered up to 40% of what is now barren Iceland. Reforestation has been challenging, but progress is being made.

One of the iconic and ironic beauties of Iceland is the barren, otherworldly landscape. There are volcanoes and glaciers, all punctuated with those stark rolling vistas oddly void of trees. While many might assume that the bare land has to do with location or climate, it has much more to do with the Vikings.

When the first settlers arrived in the 9th century from what is now Norway, forest covered up to 40 percent of the country. But then humankind does what much of humankind does best and ruined it all. The need for grazing land and fuel was met with a lack of understanding about the dangers of deforestation, and bye-bye, trees. Soil erosion was exacerbated by sheep overgrazing on plants that were already struggling, plus the additional stress from blankets of volcanic ash – all ending in Iceland's surreal (and hard to farm) topography.

But now, thanks to the Icelandic Forest Service with assistance from forestry societies and forest farmers, trees are making a comeback.

Bringing Back Trees

iceland forest

© Forest in Egilsstaðir, Iceland (E. Hermanowicz/EUFORGEN)

But alas, it's not without some controversy. The only forest-forming species native to Iceland is downy birch (Betula pubescens). Now we all know that we're not supposed to introduce non-native species into an ecosystem; it's maybe the number one ecology no-no. But thanks to a changing climate, much of the downy birch that has been planted over the last half century has failed to thrive, and in fact, is dying. So there has been much effort made in identifying non-native species that are better suited for warmer temperatures, species such as spruces, pines and larch.

So now, the Icelandic Forest Service, with the help of the Euforgen program, is working on producing seedlings locally, from carefully selected parents of these non-native species; most of them coming form Alaska. With the help of these newcomers, the forests are "growing better than anybody ever thought,” says Þröstur Eysteinsson, Director of the Icelandic Forest Service.

New Forests Show Early Progress

From the original 25 to 40 percent of forest coverage a millennia ago, by the 1950s there was a scant one percent coverage. Now it has inched up to two percent. The goal of Iceland’s National Forestry Strategy? 12 percent of forest cover by 2100, with the use of selected non-native species "ensuring resilience and sustainability."

A return of trees would have far-reaching benefits, not only for the return of farmable soil and helping to prevent the sandstorms that a lack of trees has given rise to, but also in terms of climate change. Given the county's relatively high per-capita emissions of greenhouse gases, mostly due to transportation and heavy industries, Iceland’s leaders see reforestation as an avenue toward meeting the nation's climate goals. Saving the world, one non-native tree at a time? Sometimes you have to get creative.

You can see much more about the regreening efforts in the video below.