Poor Soil Sabotages Reforesting of Iceland
GUNNARSHOLT, Iceland — With his flats of saplings and a red planting tool, Jon Asgeir Jonsson is a foot soldier in the fight to reforest Iceland, working to bring new life to largely barren landscapes.
The country lost most of its trees more than a thousand years ago, when Viking settlers took their axes to the forests that covered 25 percent of the countryside. Now Icelanders would like to get some of those forests back, to improve and stabilize the country’s harsh soils, help agriculture and fight climate change.
But restoring even a portion of Iceland’s once-vast forests is a slow and seemingly endless task. Despite the planting of three million or more trees in recent years, the amount of land that is covered in forest — estimated at about 1 percent at the turn of the 20th century, when reforestation was made a priority — has barely increased.
“It’s definitely a struggle,” said Mr. Jonsson, a forester who works for the private Icelandic Forestry Association and plants saplings with volunteers from the many lo- cal forestry groups in this island nation of 350,000 people. “We have gained maybe half a percent in the last century.”
Even in a small country like Iceland, a few million trees a year is not much.
The lack of trees, coupled with the ash and larger pieces of volcanic rock spewed by eruptions, has led to severe soil erosion. With vegetation unable to gain much of a foothold, farming and grazing have been next to impossible in many parts of the country. And the loose soil, combined with Iceland’s strong winds, has led to sandstorms that can further damage the land — and even blast the paint off cars.
And as climate change has become a greater concern, Iceland’s leaders have viewed reforestation as a way to help the country meet its climate goals. Despite the widespread use of geothermal energy and hydropower, Iceland has high percapita emissions of greenhouse gases, largely because of transportation and heavy industries like aluminum smelting. Trees, by incorporating atmospheric carbon dioxide into their trunks, roots and other tissues, can offset some of the country’s emissions.
“An important contributor to Iceland’s mitigation policy is planting trees,” said Gudmundur Halldorsson, research coordinator of the Soil Conservation Service of Iceland. “It is a big discussion here.”
But as Mr. Jonsson’s work shows, once the trees are gone, it’s not easy to bring them back.
Eruptions from some of Ice-
land’s many volcanoes deposited thick layers of volcanic material. The ash, while rich in nutrients, made for very fragile, poor soil that couldn’t hold water and moved around as the wind blew.
As a result, Iceland is a case study in desertification, with little or no vegetation, though the problem is not heat or drought. About 40 percent of the country is desert, Dr. Halldorsson said. “But there’s plenty of rainfall — we call it ‘wet desert.’ ”
The situation is so bad that students from countries that are undergoing desertification come here to study the process.
For Saemundur Thorvaldsson, a government forester, the “right” tree to plant in Iceland about 30 percent of the time is birch, the same species that was dominant when the land was settled. Birch can tolerate poor soils, and although it grows very slowly it eventually provides shelter for other species.
Most of those other species — Sitka spruce, lodgepole pine, black cottonwood — originated in Alaska. They are now grown as saplings at greenhouses in Iceland, because importing live trees is prohibited.
They grow faster than birch, so as a way to store carbon they are more effective. But everything in Iceland grows slowly, Mr. Thorvaldsson said. At one forest outside Isafjordur, planted in the 1940s, spruces were perhaps 15 meters tall. In southeast Alaska they could easily reach three times that height, he said.
Even more modest gains will take a long time, Mr. Thorvaldsson said.
“The aim now is that in the next 50 years we might go up to 5 percent,” he said. “But at the speed we’re at now, it would take 150 years to do that.”
Despite planting three million trees, in areas like this one in Hólasandur, the forested portion of Iceland has barely increased.
Jon Asgeir Jonsson is using larch saplings to help combat the soil erosion that Iceland has struggled with for centuries, since the Vikings cut down trees.