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.

Paper Boy - - Life/Style - BY HENRY FOUN­TAIN

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.”

PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY JOSH HANER/THE NEW YORK TIMES

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.

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