A Discussion with Aðalsteinn Sigurgeirsson,
Deputy director of Skógrætkin (the Icelandic Forestry Service)
at Te og Kaffi, Reykjavik
4th October 2019
With thanks to Sarah Penman for transcription and proofreading
and to Unnur M. M. Bergsveinsdóttir for Icelandic grammar support
This interview came about by my having a developing interest in trees in deforested island climates, like Iceland and the Orkney, Shetland, and Faroe archipelagos I have visited; where there are a lot of sheep and wool cultures, but not a great deal of trees. Certainly few if any ancient forests left on any of these islands.
Aðalsteinn was happy to meet and discuss a range of topics, from rabbits and puffins to whether or not the Vikings took out all the trees when they settled these islands. It turns out of course that it’s a really nuanced and complex issue; but Aðalsteinn had the goods to spill.
It also turns out that I need to plant three or four hectares of trees in order to balance my carbon emissions after visiting so many of these isolated spots to soak up the cultural resonances. I guess the next step would be to set up an initiative to facilitate a bunch of people having access to balancing their own impact, but as this interview took me 19 months to release into the wild, I should probably start working towards such an initiative, as climate change is increasingly an issue we need to take the time to rectify.
We started by talking about the Icelandic alphabet and how there are still resonances of the Anglo Saxon language in the U.K.
Aðalsteinn: If they were to write ‘the’ with the thorn letter [Þ] – which is also from Anglo Saxon – you could probably reduce every book, magazine and newspaper by 7% because, you know, replacing two letters with one…
Annie: Just boil it down, yeah. I think it got a bit confusing for the English because we have a lot of places where it’s Þe Olde Tea Shoppe; and it’s always ‘ye’ and that’s because of the thorn, they thought it was a ‘y’.
Annie: So my interest in trees came partially because I took an archaeology module as part of an art course. I really like the way geoscience students work, the way they take texts apart, they consider things more critically; and there’s a place in archaeology for some real change. Like you can dig something up that really changes perspectives. So the tree record, the peat record, dendrochronology, it’s all really interesting. So I went to Orkney with this course and we stayed on and went to Shetland; I’ve also been to Fair Isle and the Faroe Islands and I noticed there’s a very similar landscape there: there’s very few trees, and many sheep.
Aðalsteinn: Exactly. That’s where both the name for Fair Isle and the Faroe Islands derives from. It derives from the word for sheep.
Annie: Yeah, it’s ‘Sheep Island’ isn’t it!
Aðalsteinn: Sheep Island and Sheep Islands. Fjár. We still have it in Iceland, fair means sheep. But it also means money.
Annie: Like when they were used as currency.
Aðalsteinn: Harking back to those days where sheep were kind of the currency, yes.
Annie: So enough about me, do you want to tell me a bit about yourself?
Aðalsteinn: Sure. So myself, I’m currently working as the deputy director of the Icelandic Forest service. I took on that job in 2016 after having been the director of the research branch of the Icelandic Forest Service for 18 years. Before that I was a researcher for 3 years and before that I was doing my PHD in Sweden in forest genetics, and before that I took my Bachelor of sciences forestry degree at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. That’s why you may have noticed I speak with a Canadian accent. But my current job is being the deputy director, I do whatever the director doesn’t have time to do [laughs]
Annie: And is that still a fun job? Like, do you still get involved in research?
Aðalsteinn: I get involved in a lot of things. And of course, I have some old research projects lying around that I sometimes spend, like, weekends, or my Summer holidays on; but it’s not part of my job description right now.
Sometimes I actually do a little bit of that work if help is needed somewhere and I’m in the right place at the right time.
Annie: Because you have the right fieldwork experience?
Aðalsteinn: Maybe 30 or 40% of my work is on international issues like European forest cooperation, Nordic forest cooperation, things like that. Then of course we get a lot of visitors and many of them come through Reykjavik; so I’m strategically located for that, because my boss is on the other side of the country.
Annie: Yes! I was slightly worried because I can tell you’re a busy person and we were talking about what time to meet and when the email got to that I was thinking ‘we haven’t mentioned where we are yet’; and that if you were in the East, it would have taken me a bit longer to get there. Anyway, that sounds like an interesting job and I’m glad you can keep one foot in the research because I’m guessing it can be pretty addictive?
Aðalsteinn: It is. It can be very difficult to wean yourself off it; but also, part of my job is to follow up on research, I have to read scientific papers and be able to understand them to talk about things in the media and things like that. There’s actually something that’s just coming up right now, I’m going for an interview on Sunday because of something someone said which doesn’t make sense at all.
Annie: So you need to be the science correspondent for that?
Aðalsteinn: Yeah, you need to have some science background for some of that stuff.
Annie: Would you care to share?
Aðalsteinn: You mean share what’s coming up on Sunday? Annie: Yeah!
Aðalsteinn: OK. Well there was an interview in a newspaper yesterday with a professor of range management in a small university in Northern Iceland called Hòlar.
Annie: I know Hòlar, there’s a lot of trees there in between the mountains, right?
Aðalsteinn: Exactly. And she was claiming, on the basis of I don’t know what, IPCC And all kinds of scientific literature, that research has shown that ‘trees in Northern regions are dark, whereas snow coloured land is white, and therefore there is loweralbedo (type of solar radiation found in soil) from forests than Iceland without trees, which would be white’. Now this all sounds kinda logical; but you know, there’s a lot of research on this and we know that the lowlands of Iceland were kinda like Scotland. Winters are not snowy and not cold. An average January day in Reykjavik would be plus 1 degree.
Annie: A balmy plus one degree.
Aðalsteinn: So we don’t really have a lot of snow on the ground during the winter time, and the winter time sometimes gets sporadic snow from November until March. We’re at a very Northern latitude so there’s very little solar radiance at that time so it really doesn’t make much of a difference whether there’s snow or not. We’ve actually done some studies on this in the past few years that are waiting to be published, in which they are actually measuring albedo in different types of vegetation and it turns out that the lower albedo that you find is actually in a typical type tree in this barren area with little vegetation as our ground is usually dark. Black soils, dark soils there’s actually very little albedo compared to even the forests and trees and other vegetation. Now grassland has high albedo in maybe early spring to late fall, when grass is dark green but not light there’s more reflectance but that’s only for a short time; and there’s really not much say significant difference between forest and grassland in that regard; the main difference is between the barren type of land which is half of Iceland and the vegetated land. Now that’s short in the summer.
Annie: So what’s this interview for? Is it tv, radio etc…?
Annie: Cool. If only I spoke better Icelandic, I would be tuning in.
Aðalsteinn: It’s better than getting on to one of the news programmes as they usually allow you 15-20 minutes instead of just the 2 minute sound bite you’d get on the news. You’ll get about 2 sentences. [laughs]
Annie: I know the feeling. [laughs] Okay, so just a really basic question, but obviously Iceland has a limited supply of trees – we’ll get more into the complexities of that later – at the moment, how would you say the strategies for reforestation are progressing? How are things with the trees right now? In a quick 2 minute sound bite [laughs].
Aðalsteinn: In a quick two minute sound bite? Iceland is about 2% woodland cover, of that about 0.5% is planted forest. I hesitate to say plantation because they’re really not the type of square mono species blocks that you may find in Scotland from medieval times, they’re mixed. And then we have 1.5% native woodland, semi- natural woodland; I mean woodland that is leftover from 11 centuries of over-cutting and bad management, and 80% of that native woodland is actually pretty scrubbed. We’re progressing quite well from 2000-2008. We were adding on about 2000 hectares of new forest and woodland every year. Then we got the economic crisis, with cut backs and everything, especially with anything to do with…
Annie: The non-essential.
Aðalsteinn: Right. The main thing was to pay for the health services and etcetera. The financial crisis ended a few years later, it was 2008 to 2011. From there on it’s been picking up the general economy but the money for our forestation has stayed put for where it was after the end of the financial crisis; which is at half of what it was in 2008. There has been talk throughout all this time about the climate strategy for Iceland, what are we going to do? There’s been a lot of talk and very little done. We are on par with the Americans when it comes to emissions per person, we’re emitting something like 17 tonnes of C02 per person here and …
Annie: That’s per year? Per day?
Aðalsteinn: Per year per person. I think we’re the 2nd highest in Europe after Luxembourg. Of course you know that has its reasons. We have a big fishing fleet and they all burn oil and look at the cars on the street. We have the 2nd highest car ownership in the world except the Americans for various reasons. And that’s just without, you know, the emissions from the land which is also a huge factor. And our total for all that is about 17.
Annie: Emissions from land?
Aðalsteinn: That’s from agriculture. There’s emissions from agriculture and there’s emissions from land; they’re separate units.
Aðalsteinn: Emissions from agriculture are all the oil that is used to fuel the tractors and the methane emissions from cows and sheep and so on. Emissions from land is where the land is emitting more C02 than is been taken up by sequestration (the process of capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide).That’s just our heritage from the 1100 years of improper land management. The whole country was deforested, we used to have 20% woodland cover. They deforested that and turned it into grazing land, and since we’re a volcanic island these soils are pretty prone to erode if they don’t have some kind of vegetation or woodland cover. So we have massive erosion levels around but we also have under our topsoil or vegetation cover thick deposits of soil that contain a lot of organic matter and that of course is totally rotted and the vegetation on top is not sequestering the same. So the net emissions are huge. Nobody knows exactly what they are, we have guesses from 2 million tonnes of C02 per year to up to 20 million tonnes per year. Just from land, just from the dry land. The dry wetland that was drained for agriculture in the 60’s is also emitting a lot but no one knows exactly what they are. All in all the emissions from Iceland aren’t what you’d usually count; but a lot is from the land itself.
You could change this drastically by turning more into trees. Then you come to all kinds of political issues. The devil is always in the details you know. There are those who claim that we should sequester forests, the trees that grow the best and fastest, we should even have an end use some decades away, to use as timber or fuel or to buy for the economy, as a lot of countries talk about; but then there is also ‘as long as it’s done only with native species as we have only one native woodland forming species, the birch’ – which has nothing against the current administration – and that’s like a prescription for single species monoculture if we choose birch.
Annie: But where’s that argument coming from? Is it on the lines of ‘if we have to reforest, then we have to do it with Icelandic trees’? Is that some type of species racism?
Aðalsteinn: It is in a way, but it’s not just locally grown – it’s also something that biologists and ecologists all over the world are talking about – that we should not allow ecosystems to be formed with all kinds of foreign species, they often talk at the same time of biodiversity. You should only protect the biodiversity that is already there. You can get into all types of arguments.
One of the things is that our climate is warming regardless of what we do here and now in Iceland. It’s warmer by 1 degree celsius in 20 years. Our springs come earlier, our autumn frosts come later, our summers are warmer; the trees are growing faster, and we’re getting all types of problems with our native birches – with pests and diseases we didn’t have before.
Annie: Because of the diversity of species.
Aðalsteinn: So we’ve entered a brave new world of climate change and we have to adapt to that as well. That can sometimes mean bringing in new species from elsewhere even further south, and this is a discussion going on right now in Germany for example: A lot of their forests are not adapting to the hot dry summers of last year and there’s is the most recent government strategy paper with much talk about having to replace the forests with species that are better adapted to a warmer hotter world. This means in Germany, Douglas firs are always spruce; Douglas firs are an American species. Northern spruce that used to be brought in from mountains down to the lowlands are all dying from drought and insects feeding on them. That’s what the whole world is facing these days and we can’t really sit aside here and think that the world of tomorrow will be like the world of yesterday when we had cool summers and cold winters. We may be facing a very different reality in the coming years; and we have to prepare for that as well. At the same time, we have to prepare for changing our lifestyles to reduce burning emissions from fossil fuels and we need wood for that purpose; we need wood to replace fossil fuels for various things.
We need that here just like anywhere else. And we have also in this country the sparsest population in Europe, we have 3 people per square kilometre and that’s a lot of land per person.
Annie: So those 17 tonnes soon add up.
Aðalsteinn: Yes. Well the country is 103.5 thousand square kilometres and we’re now, the figure changes per year, 50-60 thousand. We have plenty of land for various things, we can use the land for other things than extensive free roaming sheep.
Annie: You know that’s the question. As an outsider, I’ll look at something and see the problem but i can’t just say ‘why don’t you get rid of the sheep?’, because I’m not part of the culture. What would you say the cultural reason is to not start penning the sheep off a little, bringing them into slightly more designated areas? Even if it’s so many thousand hectares over this side of the road, because the other side of the road is trees? What’s stopping them from doing that?
Aðalsteinn: Well sheep farming is what the Icelander holds and associates with the good old times. Part of the culture is that it’s the time of the year to go up to the highlands on horseback and bring the sheep back home. There’s all sorts of cultural things – just look in the shops – you’ll see lots of wool and sheep everywhere, it’s the same in the Faroe Islands. But there’s another thing too that we are a very urban society, 97% of Icelanders live in either Reykjavik or in towns or at least some types of towns that have more than 200 inhabitants. Just a few percentages are living out in the rural areas in the old way, the way all Icelanders lived up until a century ago; and in these rural areas there hasn’t been any other government strategy for improving the local economy other than subsidising sheep farming.
Subsidise that and people can live off the land. Now the fact is that in spite of all the subsidies, the economy of sheep farming is very poor; you don’t find a sheep farmer who is actually living off sheep farming. He lives off a) subsidies and b) another part time job, maybe he’s a school bus driver …
Annie: Or a fireman.
Aðalsteinn: Or he runs a restaurant or something else.
Annie: That’s the same with the Scottish islands, they all have 20 jobs and they’re all seasonal, in summer they are a tour guide.
Aðalsteinn: Exactly. More recently, because of the tourism there’s more to do with the rural areas being associated with tourism; so you can at least wash dishes at a restaurant and then go home and feed your sheep in the winter.
Annie: I mean that’s always been a part of culture, that’s something that’s maybe difficult for island economies but I there’s a chance that in reality it’s not necessarily problematic – it’s just not all the money comes from the sheep – and that’s fair enough.
Annie: But perhaps if I rephrase the question, I maybe said too early on ‘do we get rid of the sheep’? I didn’t mean at all to get rid of the sheep; but what’s stopping them from compartmentalising some of that land into half and half even?
Aðalsteinn: Well that’s kind of a myth that I’ve noticed around. Icelandic sheep are free roaming, they’re independent minded, stubborn and they don’t like fences. If we keep them in fences they won’t be happy with that…
Annie: In inverted commas, right?
Aðalsteinn: Of course, you sometimes have farmers, even sheep farmers, and landowners living on the land sometimes that own property and want to grow forests there. What they have to do is fence off their land from their neighbours’ sheep; and they alone are responsible for keeping the neighbours’ sheep out.
Annie: That sounds like a reasonable solution.
Aðalsteinn: That sometimes leads to the problem that their neighbour sometimes …
Annie: Doesn’t care as much about the carbon or the trees …
Aðalsteinn: That all depends of course, if you have a good neighbour and he’s a sheep farmer and he’s taking good care, if he sees a sheep on his neighbours land, he’ll go and pick it up and bring it back.
Annie: So it’s not so much the problem of keeping your sheep in, it’s keeping the other sheep out and that’s maybe harder to manage.
Aðalsteinn: Yes. But of course this has to do with a lot of other things than just the actual station. Their land is in very poor shape with the free roaming sheep grazing and they’re overgrazing …
Annie: Yeah. Perhaps you could talk about how that affects the drainage; as I read recently that obviously having no trees causes less drainage and more soil erosion.
Annie: So how does having the sheep grazing free affect the drainage and the soil? Can you maybe offer a catchy soundbite on how the trampling causes drainage problems?
Aðalsteinn: Well it’s mainly because the land is already in a very poor state after centuries of overgrazing and hand to mount subsistence farming. People really had a hard time just living off the land, they had to go to the streams and if they had a poor summer or cold winter, it was famine.
The sheep died. Back then the sheep were all outside in the winter, in sheep houses, but the main problem is that the land is in such a poor state, and there’s erosion going on; so even if you only had 1 sheep per 100 hectares or something it’s too much grazing. It’s over grazed for that land because it’s preventing vegetation from covering the land and the sheep are grazing whatever comes up. You see it in some places where land has been fenced off for forests, native forests and there’s a square block of some birch forest that the sheep couldn’t get into. They ate everything outside it so it’s preventing natural regeneration of all vegetation, that’s the main thing. We don’t have a system like New Zealand where they switch between grazing lands to they can take care of their pastures …
Annie: Fallow management.
Aðalsteinn: That’s the expression I was looking for.
Annie: That’s why Glastonbury has a year off every 9 years they have the festival.
Aðalsteinn: Oh right, that’s why.
Coming back to the ‘why not get rid of the sheep’ strategy, it’s not economical, but then we’re getting into discussions about climate change and climate activities; and one of the things that comes up of course is that farming and agriculture here have a huge carbon footprint for various reasons. On top of that, we have this land regeneration issue that the free roaming sheep grazing has prevented. Even if you look at the agriculture emissions from sheep grazing, they’re far higher here than they are in New Zealand for example. There was a paper just last weekend from an economist who’s looking at the issue and saying ‘well, if you want to reduce the carbon emissions from lamb meat in this country, the best way would be to stop it all together here and import all your lamb meat from New Zealand’.
Aðalsteinn: Despite the fact that you’re sailing …
Annie: The actual carbon footprint from taking the lamb would be lower to carry the lamb by sea? So why is it so much higher here, is that just in comparison with New Zealand?
Aðalsteinn: That’s just off the top of my head. New Zealand of course have their sheep outside all year. They don’t have concrete buildings or houses, they don’t have hay fields full of sheep for collecting hay in the winter and a lot of emissions connected to that and the fertiliser they have in their hay fields and so on.
That’s something that New Zealanders don’t need because they have hydrogen fixing plants and fallow grazing, it’s all topside. All they have to do is drive their sheep from one fence to another and then to the slaughter house. From there the meat is frozen and transported somewhere else and per kilo of lamb meat from New Zealand that has found its way into Europe there’s not much of an extra carbon emission from the whole process. It would be different if you had to fly it in.
Annie: Of course. When you say that it’s much higher here that’s in comparison from the alternative of getting it from New Zealand.
Annie: I thought you were saying there was something in the climate here in Iceland? Aðalsteinn: Well it has to do with the climate, because you do not – for animal humanitarian – let the sheep stay outside all winter like they used to in the old days.
Annie: I think they still do it in the Faroes, don’t they?
Aðalsteinn: They still do in the Faroes because they have a mild winter.
Annie: But they have problems getting the wool because they don’t have processing facilities on the islands and a lot of it gets thrown out. I digress.
Aðalsteinn: They have a milder climate so they can actually graze grass even in the mid winter. The summer temperature is cooler in Faroe than it is in Iceland, but the winter temperatures are much higher.
Annie: So it balances out for the sheep. So just to put a really quick cap on this, surely the conclusion would be to compartmentalise some of it into just literally managing the fallow cycle.
Aðalsteinn: Exactly, no question. I mean it’s a no brainer.
Annie: So is there resistance for that?
Aðalsteinn: It has cultural roots. You have agriculture fighting against the changes.
Annie: So moving on, let’s put that Pandora’s box to one side.
Speaking historically, the classic narrative is that the Vikings razed the forests for building and fires. Of course it’s going to be more nuanced than that. Aside from natural problems, just how much impact would you say the settlement had? Because the narrative is that vikings came here and tore everything up. Somebody said the other day that they caused massive deforestation. So even to say it was all the vikings; how much of it was the volcanoes and how much of it was the settlement? Is there balance there?
Aðalsteinn: Well it’s kind like in the story about the three piglets and their straw house that the big bad wolf could easily blow up, it’s kind of the same with land management here in Iceland. The Vikings here were mainly norsemen with Irish and Scottish as well, they came here to a pretty pristine land that had never been used. These were humans, not Vikings, they did what humans do everywhere still nowadays – whether it’s the Amazon rainforest or Madagascar – they burnt off most of the land to open it for agriculture for fields, for cow and sheep grazing.
In the first few centuries, this land was rather rich when it came to land productivity for livestock. We had much more sheep and even pigs than we had later, on because there was still a lot of fertility in the soil. Even in the old sagas one of the first settlers described Iceland as the ‘Land of Milk and Honey’. With a land so rich that butter dripped off every blade of grass, that kind of description; but slowly and surely the land was deforested pretty quickly, in just a century or two, leaving just the scattered remains of birch forest that continued to be used for charcoal and so on. The land was generally just grazed, and as time went on, there was a shift from cows to sheep, as they were better at rough grazing on barren land.
Annie: They look after themselves.
Aðalsteinn: Yeah. So saying ‘the Vikings burnt down or deforested the country’, it was just the common human dominator who were using these lands for their purposes and met one problem that they hadn’t faced in Ireland or the Scottish Islands or Norway: this is volcanic soil and it erodes very easily once you had gotten rid of the vegetated cover.
Annie: So they were using a standard that worked really well elsewhere but it was obviously too late and when they tried to replant, they realised that this is soil wasn’t ass fertile as they were used to.
Aðalsteinn: There’s a paper published 10 to 12 years ago by Jared Diamond, Collapse of Civilisations. There’s a good chapter on Iceland in that book, most of it makes sense. You can probably find it pretty cheaply online. He has a chapter on the settlement of Iceland. When i read it, I agreed with everything, it was actually one of the best writings I’ve seen on that issue; the only thing that was maybe wrong was the end of that chapter where he talks of this change in the 20th century when they started to practise more fallow grazing and started to manage the land better. That’s not true. They’d never do that.
Annie: Wishful thinking?
Aðalsteinn: Yeah. I can send you a recent paper from a Canadian that was here this summer. He wrote a very good piece of work, I agreed with everything in it.
Annie: So from an expert perspective, how much would you say it was a natural problem; not so much the erosion, but events like volcanoes taking down a lot of foresting at the same time. Now we are talking about it, I see it’s really a much more nuanced issue than just cutting down the trees.
Aðalsteinn: All lines of evidence show that there was very little erosion on Iceland before the 9th century. If you take a soil sample in every bog in Iceland, you’ll see that there’s a high content organic layer in the bog up to approximately 900 AD.
After that, the mineral content becomes much higher and there’s a lot of soil deposition into the bogs. What’s happening is in the 9th century, land is suddenly starting to erode, and the silt and the dust is building up in the bogs all around.
Annie: So you can see it started being a problem in the 9th century.
Aðalsteinn: It was just the tipping point, it was human activity. That was it.
Annie: So the land would have clearly been more resilient to these things before the settlement.
Annie:Then the Norsemen come along and change the balance of the soil and as soon as that tips, any volcanic activity it is going to have a much higher impact. Okay. So it was the Vikings.
Aðalsteinn: Yeah. And you mentioned the eruption of Hekla in 1104 AD, this was a major eruption which led to the whole valley of Þjórsárdalur to be deserted.
So that was in 1104, there was a community in that valley but it was destroyed by the eruption. The community was destroyed, the land was abandoned, but the birch started to grow back afterwards. There was a forest there four centuries after that eruption. Now all lines of evidence actually suggest that erosion had already started before that eruption occurred, there was soil erosion all around, it got smothered with the tephra [volcanic ash] which led to the hay fields becoming unusable; but birch grew out of it, and that’s something you can see in the really old tephra layers from thousands of years back from mount Hekla. You see it always as a thick layer of volcanic ash in the soil, but it’s always very evenly distributed all around; whereas in olden times, ash layers are very uneven, big piles here and nothing there and so on. The reason why it’s so evenly distributed is because the ash was all falling onto a woodland which stayed there, not blowing around.
Annie: Okay. So various people here have told me their grandparents were in this narrative about this initiative about 30 years ago in the south to reforest. It says on your website that it was maybe between 1950 to 1980, we’re not quite sure when. So there were no public records of a definite decision to do that, it was just people taking initiative not a national initiative.
Aðalsteinn: It was more like we still have that in the Icelandic Forestry Commission, which is not what forestry associations in other countries are, these are not just normal everyday people who are from towns and villages that are tree enthusiasts and want to plant trees somewhere around their community. That started in 1930 and it still has a membership of several thousand people in this country. 3.5% of the country has direct membership which makes it the largest environmental agency in the country. This started in 1930 and of course, there’ve been ups and downs with the activity. The peak of activity was around 1990 – they were buying a lot of land around towns and cities and planting millions of seedlings per year. This had to do with our previous President, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, who promoted the cause very much. She was kind of promoting the cause already from the day she became president in 1980, every time she travelled around the country she had kids plant trees.
Annie: Wow, that’s how to do it!
Aðalsteinn: So people built up a general interest which accumulated in 1990. After 1990, Icelanders started to plant trees on a major scale – there were even government grants to farmers who switched from sheep grazing to planting forests and so on. For that whole period, more or less from 1990 to 2008 we were planting on average between 4-6 million trees per year about 1500 to 2000 hectares.
A large share of that in the earlier stages were actually just volunteers, and in the later stages more farm-forest workers. It took really a long time for the general public to catch on to the idea that trees could actually grow in Iceland, that took a long period of convincing.
Annie: So how has activity back then inspired contemporary initiatives?
Aðalsteinn: That’s what many of the forestry commission were doing, planting small seeds here and there, that kind of lead to convincing people that trees could grow in this area or whatever. But even when I was a kid in the 70’s and 80’s, Reykjavik was basically a city without trees. It was just rock and concrete and so on, because everyone was convinced that trees couldn’t really grow; and sometimes if you go into the old neighbourhoods of Reykjavik you’ll see trees planted right up to the southern wall of the house or something because people were convinced they needed all that shelter.
Annie: Shelter, yeah. And that’s not true.
Aðalsteinn: No, not at all.If you just go to the side of Reykjavik airport, on the hill, there’s a hot water tower with peplum on the top all around that is forest. That was just rock in the 1950’s when they started.
Annie: They started cover there. I’m not really a scientist, I’m just thinking how do we go about this? Do we have to cover the trees a bit so the sheep can’t get to them. In the UK we have these …
Aðalsteinn: Tree shelters?
Annie: Yeah, by the road. I think whenever they build a road, as part of the carbon initiative they have to at least plant so many trees. They’re all planted in these plastic shells.
Aðalsteinn: We don’t use those.
Annie: I would have thought you’d need them more than we do?
Aðalsteinn: First of all, we don’t have deer, we don’t have wild ungulates. We have the sheep, and as I mentioned that’s a problem for us; but when you think of the problems that you have in the UK and the rest of Europe with moose, elks and roe deer and all those wild ungulates plus hares and rabbits and so on, it’s really nothing compared to that, we have to raise a 1 or 2 meter high fence for the sheep and maintain them. I’ve seen the fences you have to build in the nordic countries and the UK have to be 3 meters tall against the moose and then it has to be 3 meters deep against the rabbits, the hares, the voles and god knows what; It’s all types of biodiversity which we don’t know.
Annie: Do you know Elliðaárdalur?
Annie: It’s a place near Mjódd, there’s just loads of rabbits there, wild rabbits.
Aðalsteinn: Yeah, Elliðaárdalur valley, yes.
Annie: Do you know what’s going on, why is that? Were they just pets that loved each other very much? [laughs]
Aðalsteinn: They were pets of the house owner there. I guess they were a couple, and one of them likes rabbits and feeds them all winter long and of course they breed – like rabbits.
Annie: I’ve seen them all the way up in Breiðholt as well, I’ve seen rabbits up there.
Aðalsteinn: I see them every time I take a drive around there, there’s a dead rabbit on the road.
Annie: Oh no!
Aðalsteinn: They get hit by cars.
Annie: I guess it’s quite near the road.
Aðalsteinn: For some reason I know of places where there have been rabbits for decades, the Westman Islands for example; because they have such a mild winter climate, it’s even considered a problem for the puffins, because the rabbits often go into the puffin nests and kill the young or eat the eggs or something. There are a few places that they’ve been living feral for decades but it’s rare. We even had this problem at my work place in the early part of the century, 2000 to 2007, the rabbits were eating everything and we had to fence off our nursery from the rabbits and so on; and suddenly that problem disappeared overnight and we don’t know what happened but it’s never been a problem. Then some bird lover pointed out to me ‘did you know you have a bald eagle nest in the forest?’ – I wasn’t aware of that. It’s been nesting there for years, maybe that’s the reason the rabbits have disappeared …
Annie: They’ve taken the rabbits out.
Aðalsteinn: It’s a big enough eagle to at least take out a small rabbit, it’s probably keeping down the population. Annie: Whereabouts is that?
Aðalsteinn: It’s Miðvangi? In the southern end of Egilsstaðir, you’ll have to come for a visit next time you’re in town.
Annie: When you say that about rabbits and puffins, I heard on Fair isle in a certain time of year that the puffins come along and kick the rabbits out of their burrows and that’s where the puffins live.
Aðalsteinn: Exactly. They live in holes like rabbits.
Annie: Do you have that here because if you’re having rabbits eating the young or theeggs, that’s not going to be the same thing where the puffins are kicking them out? Is that a different climate thing?
Aðalsteinn: I don’t know exactly the details.
Annie: So how quickly can you see if the reforestation initiatives have been successful? Do you have to wait till the trees are up here? Or can you extrapolate the data from something else?
Aðalsteinn: That was something I was going to say in the previous question. We can get by with small seedlings here, as the country is rather barren, there’s not much vegetation competition and we don’t have these wild ungulates that eat trees if they’re not in plastic tubes; so planting trees is just a fraction of what it would be in the UK. But you can also see in the winter with good accuracy whether the planting survived because you have the determined factor for the success of planting that first winter.
Annie: Right, so you know if they’ll last the first winter as long as there’s not too much fluctuation in the temperature and the climate, that next year they’ll be equally resilient. Because I’m thinking if i was to do a PhD and I’ve only got 4 years, how on earth do i prove that I’ve done a 30 year tree growth? How do I boil that down to a thesis?
Aðalsteinn: You could talk to someone like me who’ll give you all the data from older experiments that are now at that age. While a few short term studies, 1-3 years that would be the issue; but the problem is usually that our soils are such that you have a lot of frost in the winter in places, while leaving other things because you have fluctuations in temperature all around the winter and the soil is such that it can contain a lot of water. When it freezes it forms ice crystals that push up the seedlings out of the ground. We’ve found ways to deal with that – one of the things is to fertilise better, spot fertilise around the seedling if you plant in the spring that’s more a problem in the autumn and it’s definitely a problem if you’ve done some scarification; some site preparation, because it affects the point of freezing.
All in all you can say with 80 to 90% certainty if it survived the first winter, it’s going to survive the next winter.
Annie: Okay, so when I was in Ísafjörður, there were some trees that were yay high [around two feet] and they’d apparently been there for 20 years. What causes them to not grow? Is it the wind? Lack of nutrients?
Aðalsteinn: It wouldn’t be the wind, but it would be the cool summer or the growing season temperatures in earlier years and then combined with very low fertility in the soil in regards to one element, nitrogen. Really nitrogen is the only element lacking in our soil; as the volcanic soils are no longer very rich in all the needed nutrients except for a) nitrogen and b) phosphors in available amounts to a seedling. I mean there’s plenty of phosphite in there, but it’s also tightly bound with soil particles, so it’s not easily accessible. I used to be on the board of a farm forestry project in the westfjords back in the early century, and I got a chance to look at a lot of early plantings from the forestry associations from around there and so on. When things were starting to warm up, what was often surprising was I saw these plantings and they looked pretty young to me, the leaves had a high growth rate but still they were only about my height and they had been planted in the 1950’s, so nothing had happened for years.
Annie: Is this because at an early stage in their development they can’t grow any further and they just stop?
Aðalsteinn: That’s part of it. Part of it is …
Annie: They get stunted at an early age.
Aðalsteinn: They get stunted by nutrient deficiency in cooler temperatures and when it starts to warm up, you get a) better growing conditions for the seedlings and b) more of a release of available nutrients for the soil. Then sometimes you can probably get some free living bacteria that are sequestering nitrogen from the air.
Annie: That was another question actually. A friend of mine back home is a herbalist and he seems to think that the lupins would actually deposit nitrogen in the soil. Is that true?
Aðalsteinn: The lupin is just one of many nitrogen fixing species that can grow very well here in this country, but they haven’t done so well because we have no native nitrogen fixing species in our flora. We have seven that are mentioned in The Flora of Iceland as being native; but all of them have very limited distribution in the country and were probably brought in by man after 700 AD. They are not widely found anywhere and the lupin brought in at the end of the Second World War from Alaska was in the beginning mainly propagated by the forestry service as a land improver for trees; and if you go to old plantings where you can see remnants of lupins, most of them are actually gone because they just disappeared by natural succession of vegetation that’s taken over. But in the 80’s, soil radiation service started using it on growing seed and throwing it out on areas because at the same time, it became the fad among ecologists to act as biozenophobia, to not like foreign species and blame the lupin as an invasive species. It’s really not an invasive species, it’s just simply good at using very poor land. What you can actually do a few years after sowing lupins is plant trees.
Annie: So you see them as a good thing.
Aðalsteinn: They are generally a good thing.
Annie: So last question. What can the people do to help with climate change, with planting trees? One of the questions that comes up in discussion is that there are all these experts saying we’re doing this, planting loads of trees; but how can laypeople actually get involved?
Aðalsteinn: Well I’m sitting on the board of the Icelandic Forestry Association, we would very much like to give the people a chance to do it themselves, not just pay some people money to plant trees, but actually take care of things themselves because the usual household just needs a hectare of forest to significantly reduce the carbon that they are otherwise emitting. If they fly a lot they need more than one hectare maybe 3 or 4 hectares but still it’s a good cause and also not that I’m saying you shouldn’t switch to bicycling instead of driving a car or something but i don’t see any serious effort on part of the public, the government or anybody really to do anything on reducing their direct emissions; and if nobody is doing that then the next thing to do is at least sequester carbon.
Annie: So that’s what they can do to restore the balance of their impact – planting lots of trees.
Aðalsteinn: Exactly! And in the meantime, as long as we don’t have some sort of technical development of some kind. The tree is actually an amazing invention, it’s a machine that sucks up carbon from the air and stores it for centuries.
Annie: And turns it into oxygen. Fantastic, a great note to end on.
View a selection of my other interviews HERE