even during the height of its sheep boom in
1880. Knowing that forest cover in northern New
England dropped by about 75 percent within two
centuries of European settlement, it is not all that
surprising to learn that there were once forests
in Iceland and that their disappearance came in
the wake of the island’s settlement by humans
– mostly Vikings from western Norway in the late
ninth century AD.
Based on fossil evidence, charcoal remains,
place names, and climate models, estimates
are that 25-40 percent of Iceland’s land area
was forested before a human population took
hold. The Vikings, like the European settlers in
New England, needed wood for shelter and fuel,
including charcoal to smelt iron and make iron
tools. The woods encountered, and cut down, by
the Viking settlers consisted primarily of downy
birch (Betula pubescens), with a smattering of
tea-leaved willow (Salix phylicifolia) and rowan
(Sorbus aucuparia), and in some rare cases,
aspen (Populus tremula).
This low diversity is a result of repeated
glaciations – fossil evidence indicates that in
the mid-to-late Tertiary ( 5-15 million years ago),
Iceland’s forests also included genera such
as Sequoia, Magnolia, Sassafras, Fagus, and
Glyptostrobus, a small genus of coniferous trees.
The seed source for these species was Greenland,
which was connected to Iceland until about 30
million years ago. By the onset of the Pleistocene
glaciations, the species mix indicates that Iceland
had a boreal climate and probably looked much
like New England at that time, its landscape
dominated by coniferous genera such as Pinus,
Picea, Abies, and Larix, complemented by Betula
and Alnus. The only forest-forming tree species to
reestablish itself after the various glacial periods
was downy birch, which is still the predominant
tree species today.
Today’s Take on Forest Management
To help me understand what I was seeing during
my recent visit, I met with Úlfur Óskarsson of
Iceland’s Agricultural University at the Hveragerdi
campus, an hour’s drive east of Reykjavik. Even
from the access road to the campus, I could
see some trees that were clearly not downy
birch: a lone black cottonwood (Populus tricho-carpa), an unfamiliar-looking larch, and clumps of
different kinds of spruce, which on closer inspection
turned out to be white spruce (Picea glauca),
Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmanii), and Sitka
spruce (Picea sitchensis).
None of these species is native to Iceland.
Óskarsson explained that an exotic tree planting
program was begun about 100 years ago, though
forestry efforts in the first half of the twentieth
century focused on protecting the island’s
remaining birch forest. Afforestation through
planting picked up again in the 1950s, with the
principal species Picea abies and Pinus sylvestris,
The stunning scenery of Thingvellir; hot zones can raise
soil temperatures too high for roots to survive; protecting
areas from grazing has helped with afforestation efforts.
Domestic timber sales have increased since 2008,
when a financial crisis in Iceland made wood imports
much more expensive.