The heart of Iceland is at risk, according to high-profile physician and heart surgeon Tómas Guðbjartsson. While Tómas may be best-known around Reykjavík for his lectures on heart disease and his support of the Landspítali University Hospital, when he made reference to the heart at the TEDx Reykjavík conference on May 28 he was speaking about another passion of his: conserving the Icelandic highlands.
Discovering The Highlands
Tómas has felt connected to the highlands for his entire life. “I was offered the opportunity as a child to travel with my father, who is a geologist, as he was taking people from America or Germany to the highlands and showing them the geology of Iceland,” he explains. In recent years, Tómas has regularly led hiking trips into the highlands alongside his work as a physician.
It all began in 1985, when Tómas, who speaks German, began leading Germans and Austrians through the highlands because there was a shortage of German-speaking guides. “At the time, hiking was a sport in Iceland, but it was actually more foreigners in the highlands than Icelanders,” he says. “Many saw me as a little bit of a strange guy for being interested in this.”
The state of Iceland’s highlands—the vast swath of land that occupies most of the island between its coasts and glaciers—has been of great concern for environmentalists as more hydroelectricity dams and power cables are built in the area. Last November, the musician Björk and writer Andri Snær Magnússon held a press conference at Gamla Bíó to call for a nature preserve in the highlands.
When most people arrive in Iceland at the Keflavík airport, they are greeted by an image of the highlands. It’s a dramatic advertisement by Landsvirkjun, Iceland’s national power company, which features a canyon near the controversial Kárahnjúkar hydropower plant. “Welcome to the land of renewable energy,” the text on top of the image reads. “I’ve been there a million times, and this picture makes me sad,” Tómas says. “Because, okay, this energy is maybe green, but you are leaving scars.”
One way to get Icelanders more motivated about protecting the highlands is to help them appreciate its beauty, Tómas says. “Icelanders have a bit of a minority complex about themselves and their nature,” he explains. “They think, ‘It’s much more beautiful in Canada, or it’s much more beautiful in Colorado.’ But when you take people to these areas who have been all over the world and they say, ‘Wow, this is something,’ then you realize yourself that this is worth something.”
The Effects Of Tourism
Although encouraging more people to experience the highlands might motivate them to protect the area, Tómas also says he worries that increasing numbers of tourists could be damaging. When he began leading tours of the highlands in the 80s, Tómas says there were less than 200,000 people visiting Iceland each year. Now, there are about 1.7 million tourists each year, and he adds that this number is growing by 30 percent each year.
“This is perhaps happening too fast, at least for the highlands, because we haven’t built the infrastructure,” Tómas says. “This is a little bit like having a party and you invite a lot of people to the party, but you don’t have enough seats for them.” One option Tómas says he thinks may help balance tourism with concerns about the environment would be to create a special nature conservation area in the central highlands.
Although he acknowledges that some people might criticise him for being a “middle-aged professor in 101 Reykjavík” weighing in on the debate over Iceland’s highlands, Tómas says he thinks it’s important for high-profile individuals such as himself to step up. “I see it as a huge question for all Icelanders,” he says. “Not just us living now, but for future generations.”