Why are there so few trees in Iceland?

If you are traveling in Iceland you’ll feel like the landscape is missing something. Well, that missing thing is: trees. It’s something overwhelming and seems that everybody that comes for a visit wonders at some point of their stay. Let’s find out why.

Culture

Some think that it is because of the extreme wind, others say it’s due to the cold weather. Those two are simply myths that are easily extended and could also make sense. The truth can be striking: deforestation in Iceland has to do with the land use of the first settlers.

“It doesnt’ take many people or sheep to deforest a whole country over a thousand years”- þröstur eysteinsson (Director of the Icelandic Forest Service)

Apparently, the first settlers brought sheep and needed the land for grazing and survivance. It basically means that the lands need to be cleared for the sheep and agricultre by cutting off the trees. But not only farming or agriculture were the main factors, also fuel for making fire.

If we replicate this process for many years (like a thousand years) we get to what is Iceland today.

The first settlers found Iceland with 25-40% of it covered in forests

By that time Iceland had woodlands everywhere, as they used to say “from mountain to sea”. It is hard to imagine from nowaday’s landscape how would Iceland look with that many trees.

Today the forests cover about 2% of Iceland, after big efforts of reforestation by the National Forestry Strategy. It is a big challenge to get to the old times coverage, but it seems to be working quite well.

 The lack of trees has consequences

When the trees are not there, the thin layers of vegetation are completely exposed to the harsh weather conditions of Iceland: wind, rain, snow, ice… This has a huge impact on the soil by basically damaging it. The outcome is a poor soil that makes it hard for the new trees (and other plants) to grow again without obstacles.

Afforestation without the native species

The native tree of Iceland is the downy birch and it seems that the original tree is not strong enough to survive the new climate changes (like milder winters). That’s why they are introducing and selecting well adapted species that are non-native but can handle the climate conditions. However, it seems that using non-native species has brought controversy to the issue.

Anyways, the non-native species are giving great results and specialists are very optimistic about the future of the icelandic forests.


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