Restoration Ecology 101: Iceland
Hugh Bollinger

Restoration Ecology 101: Iceland

Iceland tree planting (credit:

Restoring a once forested landscape that has been denuded, depleated, and destroyed is a challange in most places. It is particularly the case when the forest soils were blown away after more than 1000 years of degredation on a sub-Arctic island.

When their Viking forebearers settled Iceland in 874 AD it had rich forests of birch, aspen, pine, and willows. These typical sub-Arctic tree species may have then covered up to 40% of the island not glaciated. As an ecosystem, these forests had developed at the end of the Pleistocene ice age but required thousands of years of growth to cover suitable landscapes on the cold island. Environmental conditions of mature forests affects the soils, temperature, and light for tree regeneration and they are maintained by the forest itself. Within three centuries of settlement, Iceland was virtually deforested by conversion to farms and pastures. Iceland is famous for its harsh winds and weather so the exposed soils blew away leaving only remnant patches of any trees. These failed to regenerate due to livestock overgrazing leaving the modern-day Icelandic landscapes naked and which are often referred to as "a desert with rain". A reflection on this history is here.

In the 20th Century, at virtually the same time (1905) the US Forest Service was created by Theodore Roosevelt, the Islandic parliament established their own service in 1907. On the goal of the Icelandic Forest Service was to try and restore soils and trees to the island landscape. Most of their early attempts failed from a lack of knowledge of the ecological principals involved in tree establishment and regrowth. As a scientific disclipine, ecology was still in its infantsy even though ideas about its importance reached as far back as Aristotle. On sub-Arctic Iceland, one of the prime driving forces for restoration of a forest would require the process of ecological succession but that was unknown then. The mechanics and time required for successful restoration had only been recently detailed for prairie plant communities in Wisconsin, not forests anywhere. The Icelandic foresters were 'planting in the dark' with the wrong species in the wrong places. Further efforts and more knowledge of plant science increased future establishment rates.


      Tree nursery, Iceland (credit: Icelandic Forest Service)          Restored valley forest, Iceland (credit: Icelandic Forest Service)

Forest restoration work continues in Iceland and has gained. Even tourists, interested in a different sort of visitor experience, can volunteer for tree planting under a program offered by an Icelandic travel service

Correcting deforestation impacts more than 1100 years ago will take time. However, a bit of tree planting field work would be a productive addition any vacation as well as a good soak in one of island's famous hotspring baths.


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