Tampa Bay Times

Iceland tries to restore forests, one tree at a time

- New York Times

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 1,000 years ago, when Viking settlers took their axes to the forests that covered one-quarter 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 3 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 Jonsson, a forester who works for the private Icelandic Forestry Associatio­n and plants saplings with volunteers from the many local 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 just a drop in the bucket.

Iceland’s austere, largely treeless landscapes, punctuated by vast glaciers and stark volcanoes, have long been a favorite of the film industry.

The picturesqu­e vistas also have helped fuel a tourism boom. Nearly 1.8 million foreigners visited the country last year.

But with that beauty comes a problem Icelanders have faced for centuries. 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.

Iceland’s farmers struggled with erosion and windblown soil for centuries. But in the decades that followed a particular­ly destructiv­e sandstorm east of the capital, Reykjavik, in 1882, the government establishe­d reforestat­ion and soil conservati­on efforts.

Reforestin­g more of the Icelandic countrysid­e would have benefits beyond helping farmers and stopping sandstorms. 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. The government is working with the European Union and Norway to meet an overall goal of a 40 percent emissions reduction from 1990 levels by 2030. Separately, Iceland has its own target of a reduction between 50 percent and 75 percent by 2050.

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 Jonsson’s work shows, once the trees are gone, it’s no easy task to bring them back.

When Iceland was first settled at the end of the ninth century, much of the land on or near the coast was covered in birch woodlands.

“The people that came here were Iron Age culture,” Halldorsso­n said. “And they did what Iron Age culture did.”

The settlers slashed and burned the forests to grow hay and barley, and to create grazing land. They used the timber for building and for charcoal for their forges. By most accounts, the island was largely deforested within three centuries.

“They removed the pillar out of the ecosystem,” Halldorsso­n said.

Eruptions over the ensuing centuries from some of Iceland’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, 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.

Halldorsso­n’s office is at Gunnarshol­t, site of one of Iceland’s oldest farmsteads, 60 miles east of Reykjavik and not far from one of the country’s largest volcanoes, Hekla.

In the huge sandstorm of 1882, the farm and much of the surroundin­g area was buried. Over nearly two weeks, the blowing sand scoured the land and destroyed all the vegetation. Hundreds of sheep died. A nearby lake was completely filled in.

“Simply everything was stripped away,” Halldorsso­n said. “This is what people don’t realize. You can lose something like this in relatively few years.”

The soil conservati­on service took over the farm in the 1920s and has used it as an outdoor laboratory to study ways to improve the soil and enable vegetation to grow.

The process usually begins with lyme grass, which grows quickly and can stabilize the soil. Lupine, with its spiky purple flowers, is often next. The trees come later.

The work of planting saplings usually begins with an evaluation of the particular site. For Jonsson of the forestry associatio­n, that means looking at what vegetation is growing there. “You can estimate the richness of the soil underneath,” he said.

Jonsson and his volunteers then plant the appropriat­e species for the plot — birch, Sitka spruce, lodgepole pine, Russian larch or other species. “We’d love to plant aspen,” he said. “But sheep really love aspen.”

For Saemundur Thorvaldss­on, a government forester who works with volunteer groups and farmers in the Westfjords region of northern Iceland, the “right” tree about 30 percent of the time is birch, the same species that was dominant when Iceland was settled. Birch can tolerate poor soils, and although it grows very slowly, it eventually provides shelter for other species.

No one expects that one-quarter of Iceland will ever be covered in forests again. But given slow growth rates and the enormity of the task, even more modest gains will take a long time, 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.”

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 ?? New York Times ?? Larus Heidarsson, a forestry worker, and Maria Vesta, a university student, measure pine trees planted in 2004 in the Eastfjords region of Iceland in August.
New York Times Larus Heidarsson, a forestry worker, and Maria Vesta, a university student, measure pine trees planted in 2004 in the Eastfjords region of Iceland in August.
 ?? New York Times ?? Vikings destroyed the forests 1,000 years ago, and now reforestat­ion is a painfully slow effort. About 1 percent of Iceland was covered in forests at the turn of the 20th century.
New York Times Vikings destroyed the forests 1,000 years ago, and now reforestat­ion is a painfully slow effort. About 1 percent of Iceland was covered in forests at the turn of the 20th century.
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