WWhat does an Icelander do when he walks in the woods? He just stands there. This Icelandic joke is understood only by those who know the forests on the island: the few that are there are usually so young and so small that an adult can easily survey them.
That was not always so. Before the Vikings conquered what was then uninhabited Iceland at the end of the ninth century, the country was wooded to a quarter. Within a century settlers mined 97 percent of native birch to have wood for building and room for pastures. The forest has not recovered from this until today.
The harsh climate and active volcanoes, which cover the ground with lava and ash over and over again, make reforestation difficult. Iceland is the least wooded country in Europe. Only 0.5 percent of the area is covered with forest, according to a report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization [FAO]. No vegetation protects the soil from erosion, it can not hold water. Desert is spreading.
For example, in Hafnarsandur in the southwest of the island, a landscape of basalt and black sand. “This is one of the worst examples of soil erosion in Iceland,” says Hreinn Óskarsson from the Icelandic Forest Service. He is now to transform 6000 hectares of lunar landscape into forest. Equipped with a red “Potti-Putki”, a special tool from Finland, Oskarsson places palm-sized seedlings in the dry soil – coastal pines and Sitka spruces, two North American conifer species.
If they are tall, they should protect the nearby town Thorlákshöfn from sandstorms. The forestry service in Mogilsa at the foot of the Esja mountain is researching which trees are best suited for reforestation. 50 years ago a forest was created here – from imported seedlings and birches. The birch is the only native tree in Iceland. However, reforestation often involves other species.
The birch is not very “productive,” says Adalsteinn Sigurgeirsson, deputy head of the forestry service. “If, for example, you want to achieve rapid carbon sequestration or gain wood, then we need more than a monoculture of a native species.”
Climate change favors growth
In its new climate change plan, published in September, the Icelandic government has made afforestation one of the priorities for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Throughout the country there are now nurseries to create new forests. In Kvistar, about 100 kilometers from Reykjavik, up to 900,000 pine and poplar seedlings are raised each year. “Originally the trees come from Alaska, but now we have 30, 40, 50-year-old trees that give us seeds,” says the owner of the nursery, Hólmfrídur Geirsdóttir. The plantlets remain in the greenhouse for three months before continuing to grow outdoors.
Because of the nitrogen-poor soils and the low temperatures even in summer, the trees grow very slowly. Climate change seems to change that. “The warming seems to accelerate the growth in Iceland and thus the uptake of carbon,” says Sigurgeirsson. Since 2015, more than three million trees have been planted in Iceland, equivalent to an area of about 1,000 hectares. Just a drop in the ocean compared to China, where more than six million hectares were afforested in the same period.