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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

Restoration Ecology 101: Iceland

Restoration Ecology 101: Iceland

Author: Hugh Bollinger/Monday, October 23, 2017/Categories: natural history, wildlife conservation, sustainability, environment, climate change

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

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

In the 20th Century, at virtually the same time the United States Forest Service was created (1905) by Theodore Roosevelt and the Islandic parliament established their own service (1907-1908). In Iceland the goal was to try and restore soils and forests to the island. Most early attempts at forest restoration ended in failure from a lack knowledge to the ecological principals driving an ecosystem.

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 a forest ecosystem, and its restoration, was plant succession but that ecological process was unknown. The mechanics and timelines required for restoration success had only been scientifically detailed for sand-dune plant communities, not forests. The Icelandic foresters were 'planting in the dark' with the wrong species in the wrong places. Further planting efforts and more ecological knowledge increased establishment rates.


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

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

You would be participating in efforts to correct the deforestation consequences from more than 1100 years ago. That would be a productive addition to a vacation after taking a relaxing soak in one of island's famous hotspring baths.



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