Sustainability Climate Change

Iceland is preparing for a world without ice

A man holds a sapling in greenhouse in southern Iceland.
Workers transplant saplings at Kvistar greenhouse near Selfoss, southern Iceland before the young trees are planted on May 20, 2019. Getty

Story at a glance

  • Iceland is trying to ramp up its tree-planting programs, which have doubled its forest cover since 1950.
  • Trees provide many benefits, in addition to storing carbon, and are being embraced by many agricultural landowners as partners in the process.
  • Iceland has developed many innovations in tree planting under harsh and changing conditions, which may be beneficial elsewhere.

 

For the flocks of tourists that descend on Iceland every year, the stark, open landscape inspires awe and plenty of Instagram photos. Many people don’t realize the island once looked very different — its plentiful forests were razed by settlers more than 1,000 years ago. 

Icelanders have been planting trees for several decades now, and the country’s forest area has at least doubled since 1950. At first, planting was driven mainly by the desire for a domestic forest industry that could provide products such as firewood and lumber. Today, Iceland’s afforestation effort, which saw funding cuts in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, is seeing a resurgence, thanks to climate change.

In August, Iceland marked the loss of its first glacier, which was declared dead in 2014. Officials and scientists held a memorial service for the melted Okjökull, installing a plaque that reads, “This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”

Ice covers about 10 percent of Iceland; trees, only 2 percent. That balance is very likely to shift in the coming decades, with the prospect of more melting and also more tree planting, part of a climate action plan aimed at making the nation carbon neutral by 2040.

The decline of Okjökull signals huge changes ahead for an economy that depends heavily on ice and water, in the forms of tourism and seafood. Iceland has been a magnet for people eager to see the glaciers and other frozen wonders, but it may have hit peak tourism. The collapse of budget carrier WOW Air earlier this year, along with rising prices and other factors, suggest the runaway surge in visitors might be unsustainable, even if glaciers hang on for a while. Perhaps more worrying is a recent drop in populations of capelin, a cold-water fish species and key export for the country.

Climate change’s mixed bag

Not all aspects of climate change will be bad for Iceland in the short term, notes Throstur Eysteinsson, director of the Icelandic Forest Service. For now, sea-level rise is not a problem — in fact, glacier melt is driving the opposite effect. No one is concerned about drought or forest fires.

“It’s going to be a little bit warmer, and we like that idea here in Iceland,” he says. “But a crash of the ecosystems in the sea would be catastrophic for us. And we are worried about that.”

That looming prospect has driven a sense of urgency in Iceland to do something about rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Climate change may also shift the typical economics of forestry, in which a tree is only worth something when it’s cut down.

“Now the carbon sequestered in forests has value, all of a sudden,” Eysteinsson says, referring to the popularity of carbon offsets among both companies and individuals. As Greta Thunberg and other climate activists raise awareness about emissions from flying, for example, it’s easy to imagine more eco-conscious tourists hoping to make amends for their travel habits by funding more tree cover — even if such efforts so far have proved iffy in terms of effectiveness. 

Forests planted in Iceland since 1990 sequester 210,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year — about a tenth of the country’s total emissions. Iceland has its work cut out in growing that number, and funding decisions have undercut its quest to at least triple afforestation efforts within the next three or four years. Funding for afforestation increased in 2019, and the Icelandic Forest Service is on track to plant at least 3.5 million seedlings this year, a number Eysteinsson expects will increase to 8 million annually.

Finding partners

The additional trees also help nourish soil and prevent erosion, making many farmers in Iceland willing partners in the effort.

“Farmers own the majority of forest-suitable land in Iceland,” says Hlynur Sigurdsson, manager of the National Forestry Owners Association in Iceland.

Most of the farming in Iceland currently involves livestock such as sheep or cows. Sigurdsson’s group has about 700 members interested in maintaining forest for many reasons: It can provide shelter for animals, conserve water, improve grasslands for grazing and add value as a timber source.

As the climate warms, improving soil quality with trees has another potential purpose.

“We can grow barley and species that we haven’t grown here before, like wheat,” Sigurdsson says. “The farmers have land that’s more like in Europe, and they don’t have to import as much nutrition and fertilizer for the fields.”

Even with its funding fluctuations and setbacks, Iceland’s afforestation progress is remarkable given that not so long ago, residents believed trees couldn’t even grow there. It took decades to figure out which species could grow on land that had been clear for hundreds of years. 

By visiting and studying other forested places with similar climates, such as British Columbia, Alaska, Norway and Sweden, Icelanders slowly began to have success planting other species besides the native birch, such as Siberian larch, lodgepole pine, Sitka spruce and black cottonwood.

As a result, Iceland has developed its own sort of expertise in adaptation. Since the Siberian larch is showing signs that it may not do well in a warmer climate, the Forest Service is breeding and testing different tree species for the future. Now even countries that have long histories of native forest must contend with basic questions Iceland has been studying for decades: Where can trees grow, and what makes them thrive? 

“We have gained some knowledge here in Iceland that we can now share with others, and that makes us feel good,” Eysteinsson says. “The information exchange is not one-way anymore.”

Get tips on tree planting at the Arbor Day Foundation or learn about other reforestation efforts at the National Forest Service.