Iceland was extensively forested when it was first settled. When the Vikings first arrived in the 9th century, the Nordic island was covered in 25 to 40 percent forest, compared to 1% in the present day. In the late 12th century, Ari the Wise (Ari Thorgilsson, 1067-1148 AD), Iceland’s most prominent medieval chronicler, described it in the Íslendingabók (Book of Icelanders (see notes 1) as “forested from mountain to seashore”.
Unfortunately, after the permanent human settlement, the forests were heavily exploited for firewood, timber and to make room for farming. Within a few centuries, almost all of Iceland’s trees were gone. This rapid deforestation has resulted in massive soil erosion that puts the island at risk for desertification. Today, many farms have been abandoned. Three-quarters of Iceland’s 100,000 km2 (39,000 sq mi) is affected by soil erosion, 18,000 km2 (6,900 sq mi) serious enough to make the land useless.
Today, the Icelandic Forest Service (see notes 2) has taken on the mammoth task of bringing back the woodlands. The organization plant around three million seedlings each year in the island’s soil. With the help of forestry societies and forest farmers, Iceland’s trees are slowly beginning to make a comeback. But there are many difficulties. For example, as the climate getting warmer, the winters have become milder.
As a result, many of the trees planted back in the 1950s, especially Siberian larch (Larix
Video: Iceland is growing new forests for the first time in 1,000 years
Ewa Hermanowicz is a science communicator with a particular interest in film and photography. Since 2012, she has been producing films highlighting stories around the research on genetic biodiversity. Locations of her films include India, Zambia, Iceland, UK, Germany, France. She has covered all stages of production, from finding the story through direction, editing to promotion.
- Íslendingabók (Book of Icelanders; Latin: Libellus Islandorum) is an early 12th-century historical work dealing with early Icelandic history. The author was an Icelandic priest, Ari Þorgilsson (1067-1148 AD). Historians consider the work the most reliable extant source on early Icelandic history.
- The Icelandic Forest Service is an institution that works with and for the government, the public and other interested parties, on the subjects of research, development, consultation, and distribution of knowledge within forestry. The institution is also Iceland’s representative in cooperation with other countries. See the institution’s official website.