A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about loss of vegetation worldwide as measured by satellites, and some time before that about global loss of tree canopy. There have been many attempts at planting, or replanting, trees around the world, sometimes in areas where logging or cutting down trees for fuel has increased vulnerability to landslides.
The success of these efforts varies, however. One country, Iceland, has been working steadily to recreate what it lost hundreds of years ago when the Vikings who settled the island hacked away at the forests to clear land for growing crops and grazing animals. Back then, about 25% of Iceland was forested; today, less than 2% is.
The island has been paying for the loss of trees ever since, with severe erosion, sand and dust storms, and vast stretches of land that are now unsuitable for farming. More than a century ago, after a dust storm that affected the capital city of Reykjavik, the government began promoting reforestation. But it’s been slow going. Volunteers and forestry associations have planted millions of trees, but, as one forester notes in this New York Times article, “We have gained maybe half a percent in the last century.”
The island’s notorious volcanoes—the ash clouds from the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull disrupted air traffic throughout much of Europe in 2010—have made the problems worse. Volcanic ash and loose soil, rocks expelled by the eruptions, and strong winds combine to increase erosion.
The sandstorms are devastating, sometimes removing paint from cars. The NYT article (which has some spectacular photos and footage of the island) describes a prolonged storm in 1882—the one that may have prompted the government to action: “Over nearly two weeks, the blowing sand scoured the land and destroyed all the vegetation. Hundreds of sheep died, their wool so weighed down with sand that they could not reach shelter. A nearby lake was completely filled in; farmers found trout lying on the top of the sand once the storm was over.”
Trees don’t easily grow back in the damaged soils, and planting new ones is a multi-step process. It usually starts with the planting of grasses and other plants that help stabilize the soil, followed by saplings that are deemed best suited to a particular site. Common species include birch, Sitka spruce, lodgepole pine, and Russian larch.
Today, Iceland is hoping to plant enough trees to help offset its carbon emissions; the target is to cover 5% of the island with forest, but some estimate that at the current rate of progress it will take 150 years to accomplish even that modest goal.