32,000 km Of Wetland Trenches! - The Reykjavik Grapevine

32,000 km Of Wetland Trenches!

32,000 km Of Wetland Trenches!

Published August 26, 2016

Photos by
Atli Harðarson

Hangikjöt (smoked lamb), kindur (sheep) and skyr (like thick yogurt)—these are some Icelandic words that pop up when you hear someone mention farming in Iceland. Iceland has a long agricultural tradition. Around 1850, about 90% of the population worked as farmers, helping hands, fishermen and tradesmen in rural areas, small towns and villages. Little had changed in food production since the 9th and 10th centuries. Today, about 5,000 people work as farmers in the agricultural sector (about 1.7% of the population), not counting workers in industries based around agricultural products. The number of Icelandic farms barely exceeds 4,000.

As tough machines started to make an impact on agriculture in the late 1930s and especially in the late 1940s, a new chapter in the utilization of soils with lush vegetation cover stated with a bang after WWII. Belt-driven excavators cut deep trenches into low-lying wetlands, in order to turn them into drier fields, mostly for hay-making or grazing. Some money from the Marshall Plan (the USA’s postwar economic aid scheme) was used for this purpose. Trenches were connected to a brook or a river, and within some years the whole drainage system of the chosen wetland area was changed. What people did not realize was that this caused increased emission of carbon dioxide, as oxygen could react with the wet peat-like content of the soil. Emissions from each hectare of drying wetlands amounts to 4-6 tons of carbon equivalents per year. In addition both flora and fauna are heavily affected.

Originally, Icelandic wetlands covered about 10,000 square kilometres, or roughly 10% of the island. The “drying-up” scheme resulted in 32,000 km of trenches that affected 4,000 square kilometres of wetlands. (That worked out to 40% of Iceland’s total wetlands, the highest such ratio in Europe.) Sound evaluations of the needs of each farm or whole regions were made only in isolated cases, and the efforts soon overstepped necessary and rational boundaries.

Various experiments, supported by the government and headed by experts, have shown that reclamation of wetlands is a relatively simple process. Now there are some restoration projects underway, under the auspices of the State Soil Conservation Service.

The Paris Agreement on climate calls for carbon sequestration as well as reduced greenhouse gas emissions. One effective method is restoration of wetlands. Other methods include soil reclamation in general, as well as restoration of birch woods plus afforestation with foreign tree species. According to specialist Dr. Ólafur Arnalds (uncle of the same-named musician), we could bind 2.2-4.3 million tons of carbon equivalents per year by 2050, counteracting total emissions from various sources in Iceland by up to at least 50%.

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