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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

Restoration Ecology 101: Iceland

Restoration Ecology 101: Iceland

Author: Hugh Bollinger/Friday, January 4, 2019/Categories: natural history, wildlife conservation, sustainability, environment, climate change

Restoring a forest landscape that has been denuded, depleated, and destroyed is a challange in most places. This is particularly true when the soils have blown away as well as being more than 1000 years ago on a sub-Arctic island.

When their Viking forebearers of present-day Icelanders settled the island in 874 AD it had rich forests of birch, aspen, pine, and willows. These are typical sub-Arctic tree species that may have then covered up to 40% of the island. As an ecosystem, the Icelandic forests had developed at the end of the Pleistocene but required thousands of years of growth to cover suitable landscapes. The environmental conditions within mature forests ie, soils, temperature, and light are moderated and maintained by the forest cover itself. Within three centuries of settlement, Iceland was virtually deforested by conversion to farms and pastures. The island is famous for its harsh winds and weather so the exposed soils blew away leaving only remnant forest patches. The remaining trees failed to regenerate due to livestock overgrazing leaving the modern-day naked Icelandic landscapes often referred to as "a desert with rain". A reflection on this history is here.

In the 20th Century, at virtually the same time (1905) the US Forest Service was created by Theodore Roosevelt, the Islandic parliament established their own service in 1907. In Iceland the goal was to try and restore soils and forests to the naked island. Most early attempts ended in failure from a lack of knowledge for the ecological principals involved.

The science of ecology was still in its infantsy even though ideas about its importance reached as far back as Aristotle. In sub-Arctic Iceland, one of the prime drving forces for restoration of a forest ecosystem is succession but that ecological process was unknown then. The mechanics and timelines required for success had only been scientifically detailed for sand-dune plant communities, not forests, in Wisconsin. The Icelandic foresters were 'planting in the dark' with the wrong species in the wrong places. Further efforts and more ecological knowledge increased establishment rates.


Iceland Tree Planting1900-2015 (credit: Iceland Forestry Service)      Reforested Icelandic Valley (credit: Wikicommons)

Icelandic forest restoration work continues and has gained more attention. Even tourists, interested in a different sort of eco-travel experience, can volunteer for tree planting under a program designed by Iceland Travel.

Correcting the consequences of deforestation more than 1100 years ago will take time. However, a fit of field work would be a productive addition to a vacation after taking a good soak in one of island's famous hotspring baths.



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