From Iceland — So What's This Changing Flora I Keep Hearing About?

So What’s This Changing Flora I Keep Hearing About?

Published August 6, 2014

So What’s This Changing Flora I Keep Hearing About?
Photo by
Inga María Brynjarsdóttir

In an interview with Icelandic state radio, RÚV, Þóra Ellen Þórhallsdóttir, professor of botany at the University of Iceland, said that the flora of Iceland was going through “much faster changes than previous generations of Icelanders have seen, with the exception of those who first settled here and were most active in cutting down forests.” Previously barren areas have become covered in vegetation, and birch and willow trees are growing where once there were barely tufts of grass.

That is great! Unless it’s terrible. It’s terrible, isn’t it?

Not necessarily. The Icelandic flora, which had been developing in peace, has never really recovered from the arrival of humans at the end of the 9th Century. They chopped down most of the trees and let their sheep eat the rest.

Never trust anyone that woolly. Or one who carries an axe around for no good reason.
Around the year 1900 the human inhabitants of Iceland stopped punching nature into submission for long enough to look at what they had done. Maybe, they thought to themselves, we should try to fix the damage. Some of them did, at least. Others started putting up hydroelectric dams everywhere they could.

Nature is like a vampire, it’s not enough to kill it; you need to bury it under running water.

You are mixing things up. Vampires are unable to cross running water but they should be buried at crossroads. It took centuries for desertification to get completely out of control. But for about four hundred years, roughly from 1550–1950, Iceland suffered catastrophic soil erosion. A quarter of Iceland is now desert. Or more, depending on how you define desert. Another way of looking at it is that only 11% of the country has not been affected by soil erosion.

So killer sheep destroyed pretty much everything?

The sheep were just being sheep, eating plants to stay alive. It is not entirely fair to blame farmers either, because for most of history humans had a very poor understanding of ecology. Today Icelandic sheep farmers direct their sheep to areas that can sustain grazing and at least a third of them work with The Soil Conservation Service of Iceland to help the land recover.

If I can’t blame sheep or humans, who do I blame?
Rest assured, you can still blame humans. We are still causing a mess. One reason for the changes in Icelandic vegetation is that the climate is changing, which has made it easier for the flora to recover. One startling example, as mentioned by Professor Þóra Ellen Þórhallsdóttir, is that some glaciers have been receding at a speed of 150 metres per year. That has opened up new areas for plants to grow.

Is there any problem global warming can’t fix?
Well, it could make Earth so inhospitable to humans that we will all have to leave the planet or die out as a species, which would be a solution of sorts. Meanwhile, some humans are trying to reverse what previous generations have done. In the last decade more area has been recovered for vegetation than has eroded. The increase is slow but, as the professor of botany pointed out in her radio interview, when plants have gotten a secure foothold, they can spread rapidly.

Nature’s like zombies then. You get one zombie, then it bites some people and soon you’re overrun with zombies.
There are other ways to relate to nature than by comparing it to monster films. But yes, after turning large parts of Iceland into desert, humans have finally started to reverse the process. The Soil Conservation Society of Iceland, founded in 1907, has been crucial. Its methods have been everything from organising small armies of tree-planting volunteers to dropping seeds and fertiliser from planes.

Unlike with zombies, dropping actual bombs on eroding soil would only make the problem worse.
There are differences of opinion on which methods to use to reverse soil erosion. The most emotional debate centres on the plant Lupinus nootkatensis, or the Nootka lupin. It was introduced to Iceland because it grows well in eroded soil and fills it with nitrite, which plants use for energy. In theory, once the Nootka lupin has enriched the soil, other kinds of vegetation move in and make use of this bounty of food.

The “in theory” part of that last sentence sounds like the sort of thing a movie scientist says just before claiming: “Nothing can possibly go wrong.”
In many areas Nootka lupins have been displaced by native plants, but in other areas they have smothered all other species. It has at least stopped the soil from eroding. But that is a tiny bit like solving the problem of human-caused desertification by having zombies eat all the humans.

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