Larix sibirica (Siberian larch, the mystery larch I
had seen from the road). While downy birch is also
being planted, the recovery of this native species
is credited more to protection from grazing than
it is to planting. Since there were no protected
areas until about 100 years ago, most of Iceland’s
oldest birch woods are about the same age as the
planted stands of introduced species.
The planting of North American rather than
native or European species, at least during the
second wave of afforestation, was at least in
part due to fluctuations in climatic conditions.
On top of the overall warming trend in global
temperatures, Iceland is very much affected
by a phenomenon known as the North Atlantic
Oscillation, an irregular fluctuation in atmospheric
pressure that influences winter weather in all of
the North Atlantic’s land masses.
In Iceland, the 1960s were characterized by
a cooling trend, which some of the European
species that had been planted could not withstand.
It also became clear that many species whose
provenances were too northerly or too continental
were hard hit by mild winters, which led to the
premature loss of winter hardiness and, consequently, damage from spring frosts. Therefore, the
selection of plant material became more focused
on trees from western North America, where
species such as Sitka spruce are adapted to mild
winters and cool summers, particularly near tree
limits in coastal mountain ranges. Since then,
though, the warming trend has continued, with
temperatures increasing by approximately 3. 6
degrees. As a result, trees from warmer climes
are starting to take hold – species like oak and
beech, as well as fruit trees like apple, pear, and
Most of the tree planting in Iceland is done by
private landowners, with costs paid through farm
afforestation grants. About 700 farms participated
in afforestation projects in 2013, constituting
over 25 percent of Icelandic farms. According
to the Iceland Forest Service, a farmer can earn
the equivalent of two to three months’ wages for
afforesting a large tract of land.
I asked Óskarsson how Icelanders felt about
the increased presence of trees and forests.
He told me that, especially among older people
who grew up without trees, he sometimes hears
complaints about views being blocked. On the
other hand, people who have had the experience
of standing leeward of a shelterbelt on a windy
day (which is basically every day in Iceland)
certainly appreciate the protection trees provide.
The national forests are popular with the public
for recreation, and 7,000 Icelanders (about 2. 5
percent of the population) are members of the
Icelandic Forestry Association – by far the largest
environmental NGO in Iceland.
Iceland’s forestry efforts have been at least
as much about ecological objectives, like soil
conservation, as they have been about cultivating a
commercially viable resource. Still, it’s impossible
to escape economics, as illustrated by the worldwide financial crisis that began in 2008, which
had dramatic effects in Iceland. As a result of
the country’s dire financial situation, funding for
forestry was cut in half. In a domino effect, there
was a drastic reduction in planting, tree nurseries
went out of business, and trained foresters
moved abroad in search of employment. At the
same time, wood imports became prohibitively
expensive as a result of the collapse of the
Icelandic krona. Thinning of the domestic tree
plantations thus became more economically
viable and led to considerable increases in timber
sales by the Forest Service.
Forests, Geology, and Climate Change
While 2008 was the beginning of financial
disaster for many Icelanders, Óskarsson’s life
was affected by a different kind of upheaval. On
May 29, 2008, an earthquake shook the southern
part of Iceland and destroyed his home on the
Hveragerdi campus. There, Óskarsson showed
me a clearing partly covered by a skeletal-looking
stand of dead trees and shrubs and partly covered
by bare soil with hot steam coming out of the
ground. He explained that the steam came from
new fissures that the earthquake had opened in
the ground beneath Hveragerdi. The dead trees
had been growing in soils that became too hot
for their roots to survive – 100-175 degrees at
the most severely affected sites. Recognizing
the usefulness of the new fissures for research
on the effects of climate extremes on eco-
systems, some of Óskarsson’s colleagues at the
Agricultural University set up plots to measure
a variety of biogeochemical and phenological
parameters along soil temperature gradients.
Traveling through other parts of Iceland over
the following days, I found myself contemplating
the complexity and serendipity that characterizes
the story of this nation’s forests. Sure, tectonic
movements in some way relate to everything that
happens on the earth’s surface, but in few places
are cause and effect as directly evident as in
To an Icelander born 100 years ago, today’s
forests would seem like a novelty. To the first
Icelanders arriving in the ninth century, they would
not – though perhaps the species mix and plantation
spacing would seem odd. Notwithstanding all
the changes in climate, species composition, and
associated ecological patterns, Iceland’s forests
today stand a real chance of recapturing some
of their former importance in the landscape.
They already occupy a firm place in the country’s
economy, ecology, and culture.
Warming temperatures in Iceland have led to changes in the species of trees being planted.
This article was supported by Northern Woodlands magazine’s Research and Reporting Fund, established by generous donors.