Iceland is bringing back the forests razed by Vikings

If you lived in Iceland 100 years ago, you’d probably never seen a tree in real life. They had all been chopped down by the Vikings who settled the previously unpopulated land starting in the 9th century. But more recently, the country known for its rocky, otherworldly landscapes has been trying to bring back its long-lost forests.

Progress has been slow for a number of reasons: Iceland’s weak soil is low in nitrogen, which means trees take a long time to mature, and its cooler temperatures also present a challenge for tree growth. An influx of non-native rabbits have also interfered by developing an appetite for saplings.

But recent data show Iceland’s tree-cultivating efforts are paying off. Today, forests and shrubs take up six times the amount of surface area than they did in 1990, when the country stepped up its reforestation efforts, according to the Icelandic Forestry Association. Thanks to the millions of seedlings planted each year, forest cover now stretches across 2% of Iceland.

That’s a small amount compared to the slender birches, aspens, and other trees that once flourished across an estimated 25-40% of Iceland. But it’s an indication that forest growth is finally accelerating. “We are very happy, and of course we want to continue,” Arnór Snorrason, a forester with the Forestry Research Station, told the Icelandic publication Vísir in April.

Why doesn’t Iceland have more trees?

When Vikings first arrived in Iceland more than 1,000 years ago, they quickly set about razing the forests of the island. The Norse newcomers relied upon wood as fuel and building material, and used charcoal to forge iron tools.

The Vikings also cleared forests in order to use land for crops and sheep grazing. That decision would, in the long term, prove to be a big problem for Icelandic agriculture. The country’s forest decimation, in combination with its volcanic soil, led to widespread soil erosion that made it more difficult for later generations of farmers to grow food or give their livestock sufficient plants to nibble upon.

How Iceland is revitalizing its forests

Reforestation has a number of potential benefits for Iceland, ranging from improving its soil quality (and benefiting farmers in turn) to helping to ward off sandstorms and offsetting some of the country’s carbon emissions.

So far, the government’s Icelandic Forest Service and other forestry groups have had success with the country’s native birch as well as foreign trees that can adapt to the country’s frequently wet and windy climate, including Siberian larch, lodgepole pine, and black cottonwood.

Hybrid trees may also play an important role in reforestation. The Icelandic Forest Service is cross-breeding the Siberian larch with a European variety that may be better suited to temperatures warmed by climate change.

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