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Egill Helgason

Consumer happy nation in vulnerable nature

About a quarter of Iceland was probably covered by forest before settlement. In a short time the settlers managed to destroy the forests. Iceland is known for its unspoiled nature, open country, wilderness and sand deserts; much of which actually came about through destruction of the vegetation and erosion. Icelanders have to starting thinking about how they treat nature.

Apr 07, 2011

"At that time the vegetation in Iceland stretched in many places from the mountains to the seashore", it says in Are Frode's Íslendingabók, (The Book of Icelanders), the oldest source of the first habitation in Iceland. The book was written about 1122, the country was probably first settled around 870. In all likelihood about a quarter of the country was covered with forest. In a short time the settlers managed to destroy the forests – there were not high trees, but rather scrub that stretched up the mountainsides. It was used as firewood, but overgrazing also had an effect. Sheep grazing has continued to cause destruction of the vegetation in Iceland right up until the present day.

The forests did not grow again. The destruction was total and among the greatest in the early history of mankind. The famous environmental scientist, Jared Diamond, writes about Iceland in his book Collapse - the country is mentioned as an example of a nation that has struggled to live in harmony with its environment.

Iceland is known for its unspoiled nature, open country, wilderness and sand deserts; much of which actually came about through destruction of the vegetation and erosion.

Man made wilderness

Tree planting in Iceland did not start on a large scale until the 20th century. Old photos of Reykjavik from over fifty years ago show a city with virtually no trees. That has changed a lot. Reykjavik has become a lush city, and across the whole country there is forest regeneration and sand deserts have been planted. Therefore, there has been less erosion, which in Southern Iceland, in particular, had been a curse in the past.

Modern people can be inspired by wilderness and deserts, even if they are to some extent man made. Desolate mountains and vast sandy areas are among the most popular destinations for visitors to the country. Revegetation of such areas is controversial. The hardy lupine plant has been used to cultivate the desert areas. It spreads and makes the landscape strikingly blue. Many see it as an invasive species and want to root it out.

Planting giant poplar trees from Alaska has proven to be a great success, as they have the capacity of growing straight and high into the air despite all the wind in Iceland. The giant poplar has become very prominent, not just in the towns but also in many places close to farms.

Meanwhile, there is a debate raging between the forest users and those one can call the pure strategists. Reykjavik City Council has started a campaign against the giant poplars within the city limits and the lupines have been torn up by the roots throughout the country. Many also believed that it was pure sacrilege when, in the years when the forest regeneration ideal was strongest, "foreign" conifers were planted on Iceland's holiest site, Thingvellir.

Influx of tourists

The Icelandic nature is extremely vulnerable; the country is close to the Arctic Circle. In the mountains you can find lovely green spots where little flowers and moss grow which cannot cope with floods of visitors. Tourism has grown significantly, there are now 600,000 foreign tourists visiting Iceland every year, which is almost double the country's population. It is expected that this figure will increase to about one million in future years. Most of these people are looking for unspoiled nature. This puts a greater pressure on the environment, particularly in popular places like Myvatn, where there is a huge impact in the short tourist period in June, July and August. Myvatn is a Nordic beauty spot with unique vegetation, bird life – and geothermal heat.

An idea that the most popular places should begin to charge the tourists has been put forward. The money would go to necessary development and conservation. But no agreement has been reached on this.

Damaged fish stocks

It is impossible to discuss sustainability in Iceland without talking about fisheries and energy.

When it comes to fishing, Icelanders are a model for other nations, to a certain extent. Fish stocks are in a better state here than many other places in the world. This has, however, not always gone smoothly. For a long time, herring made up the major share of Icelandic fisheries. It was caught uncontrolled off the coast of Iceland up to the sixties when it virtually disappeared overnight. It was claimed that herring fishing was erratic, but the cause of the collapse of herring fishing was primarily overfishing.

The same can be said of cod, which has also made up a major share of Icelandic fisheries. A controversial quota system has put restrictions on cod fishing in recent decades. The stock has still not been successfully built up to the size it was when the catches were at their greatest. The catch was then 450,000 tonnes per year; it is now around 150,000 tonnes. This has led to deep disappointment – but that is counterbalanced by fishing species that were rarely used earlier, and by increasingly higher prices for fish.

Clean energy and heavy industry

Icelanders are in a fantastic position when it comes to generation of power. The waterfalls produce electricity; most homes are heated with heat from the centre of the earth. However, there has still been considerable controversy about the environmental impact, such as with the giant power plant in Kárahnjúkar. Geothermal power plants can lead to sulphur emissions. We must live with the paradox that while Iceland is marketed as an unspoilt country for tourists, it has a large aluminium industry that has been built up with power plants and has an impact on the environment. It is a fact that some of the energy companies have major problems because of risky investments – it is alleged that there is now a need to raise the price of hot water in Reykjavik by several tens of percent.

The tendency, as has been said, has been to build large aluminium smelting plants - the imagination has not really reached beyond that. This is a simple solution that quickly creates economic growth. The aluminium plants have so far been driven by hydropower, but now it is likely that facilities will be constructed that will be powered by geothermal energy.

Is geothermal heat renewable?

There is no agreement on geothermal heat areas. Stefan Arnorsson, Professor of Geophysics at the University of Iceland, has compared them with mines. It is possible to overconsume geothermal heat and that it will be exhausted within a few decades. Stefan thinks that there is a tendency to start things up without knowing how much heat production there is in the centre of the earth. Other analysts – and interest groups – think that Stefan is being unnecessarily pessimistic. If you are careful with the consumption of geothermal heat, it is renewable.

Stefan thinks that it is right to use geothermal heat as before in Iceland, for the benefit of local communities - for heating houses and towns, greenhouses and swimming pools and small-scale power production. In this way we will ensure that we deliver a sustainable resource to our descendants. The public sector, especially the municipalities, have much bigger plans – along with employee and employer organisations – and some large geothermal power plants, which most likely will be used for heavy industry, is in the initial phase.

Large ecological footprint

The history of Iceland has been a struggle with a harsh nature. The forests were destroyed and, when the fishing boats got big enough, the fishing stocks were wiped out. Icelanders live in a tough climate and nature is not particularly generous, but in today's world they are lucky when it comes to energy production; the country has an abundance of clean energy.

Icelanders will still not be considered as role models in environmental matters. They are a major car nation and greenhouse gas emissions are high. Icelanders' consumption is also exceptionally high. According to a study conducted by Sigurdur Johannesson, expert at the Icelandic Environment Agency, last year, Icelanders so-called 'ecological footprint' is one of the largest in the world; fourteen times greater than the world average. This means that if consumption for all of mankind was the same as for every Icelander, we would need 21 planets to meet the demand.

The views expressed are those of the author.

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