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Ask A Forester: Why Are There So Few Trees In Iceland?

Ask A Forester: Why Are There So Few Trees In Iceland?

Phil Uwe Widiger
Words by
Photos by
Art Bicnick
Courtesy of Brynjólfur Jónsson

Published May 17, 2018

What do you do when you get lost in an Icelandic forest? Stand up.

That’s one of the lamest jokes about Iceland but it portrays the Icelandic landscape very well. We asked forester Brynjólfur Jónsson to enlighten us as to why Iceland is missing forests.

“The main reason is that the early settlers cut down and burned trees for cattle and charcoal production, which was a huge industry in Iceland in former times. Forests used to cover around 35% of Iceland’s land area, but due to deforestation, we ended up with less than one percent.

Another thing is that Iceland is very young in geological terms, only 15 million years old. The very vulnerable ecosystem wasn’t ready for this invasion of man and cattle. Even now, there are less than 500 taller species, like flowers and trees.

Also, without forests, other elements of nature were easily disturbed. Without protection from wind, soil erosion from the highlands all the way to the sea became another problem and the process of deforestation escalated. Most of the forests had disappeared in the Middle Ages, around 1500/1600.

In 100 years we have only managed to plant trees on 0.4% of Iceland’s land area. That’s not much. Hopefully, we can get 4-5% of the land area covered in this century. Unfortunately, after the bank collapse in 2008, the subsidies to the forestry project were halved, resulting in less trees being planted. We are importing all the wood and paper from other countries but if we would put more effort into it, we could grow everything that we use here in Iceland.”


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