3. Environment and Geography
Iceland is a barren country. Only a small part of it is inhabitable and a mere one-fourth of the country is covered by vegetation. This is due to the fact that the climate is unsuitable for vegetation, and to volcanic activity, glacial movements, and over-grazing. About 60% of the country is over 400m above sea-level, but between 200-400m there is a large reduction in the level of vegetation, and at 700m above sea-level the land is at its most barren.
Icelandic vegetation is typically made up of short plants such as heather and birch. There are no large forests in the country, although there is considerable interest amongst Icelanders in forestation and soil reclamation. The largest forest in Iceland is Hallormsstaðaskógur in Hérað.
For those interested in Icelandic plants, it is worth visiting the Botanical Garden in Akureyri. Most of the local plant types are cultivated there. Another beautiful, although somewhat smaller, botanical garden is located at Laugardalur in Reykjavík.
As a result of both the forces of nature and human activities, there has been significant soil erosion and deforestation over the centuries. It is thought that at the time of Norse settlement about 60% of Iceland was covered by vegetation, a figure which now stands at about 25% with only 1% forestation.
The country has been over-exploited: sheep and horses have grazed on the land without pause, leading to serious damage to vegetation. However, much is being done by the Icelandic Government and various organizations to halt this trend and there is considerable public interest in soil reclamation.
Conservation and Soil Reclamation
Iceland’s first conservation laws were passed in 1956. The intention behind the law is to create a greater harmony between people and nature so that unnecessary harm to life and land is avoided and so that the sea, land, and atmosphere are kept free of pollution.
The Act makes provision for the protection of certain areas from human damage with an eye to allowing the natural life to thrive on its own terms. Those areas which are unique or have historically enjoyed protection are also covered, and special institutes work in accordance with the laws.
About 80 places are now designated as conservation areas. Here people have the possibility of enjoying wild and untouched nature.
Amongst Iceland national parks are Þingvellir, Snæfellsjökull and Vatnajökull National Park that was established on June 7th 2008. The Vatnajökull National Park is the largest national park in Europe, covering around 12.000 km2, or 11% of Iceland.
Besides these protected areas, there are many areas which are kept free for other reasons, such as those places protected by the State Land Reclamation Service and State Forestry Commission. Special forestation areas have also been designated.
There is a lot of public interest in forestation and soil reclamation and a lot has been achieved in this area. However, much work remains if the job is to be done well.