Wherever we live, a variety of factors shape our environment. As a country, Iceland is obviously moulded by its northerly latitude, oceanic climate and copious volcanic activity. However, these features are not nearly enough to explain the current state of the Icelandic environment. At least three more factors have to be taken into consideration, all of which can be regarded as ‘historical’ in some sense.
An unusually erect native birch tree (Betula pubescens)
(photo: Axel Kristinsson).
The Ice Age.
Like all northerly regions, Iceland was deeply affected by the Ice Age that has periodically sent massive ice sheets to cover much of the northern hemisphere during the past two million years. During these times, Iceland would truly have deserved its name as most of it was covered with ice. Before global cooling, however, the island had supported lush forests containing redwoods, magnolias and rhododendrons, to name but a few species. As the cold set in, all this diversity disappeared and in Iceland, as everywhere else affected by the ice, life virtually disappeared
A remote island.
As the ice retreated about 12,000 years ago, life surged back. Plants and animals that had waited out the cold in the warmer south moved north once again, and some of this adjustment is still going on. Norway spruce, for example, only reached Scandinavia after several thousand years and is still spreading around the fjords of Norway. As Iceland is an island far out in the North Atlantic, reaching it was all the more difficult and most animals and trees were unable to do so. The result was an extremely poor spectrum of Flora and Fauna, much of which had simply been carried over from colder times giving the country a tundra-like appearance. When the first humans reached the island, the only land mammal was the arctic fox and the woodlands were mostly made up of shrubby birch. There were no effective leguminous plants, so important for maintaining fertility of the soil. However, modern experiments in horticulture have conclusively shown that Iceland’s climate and soil is capable of supporting a wide variety of vegetation.
The advent ofhHuman settlement in the late 9th century AD came as a profound shock to this remote and impoverished environment. The new farming population, drawn largely from Norway and the British Isles, based its livelihood mainly on animal husbandry. The shrubby woodlands were of little importance to these settlers and most were eradicated in less than a century, turned into pasture for sheep and cattle. The disappearance of these woodlands and the introduction of grazing animals resulted in a great increase in soil erosion, which has been an endemic problem in Iceland ever since. With human habitation, the Icelandic environment entered into a new and different phase. The exact nature of this change and the continuous interaction between nature and farming through the centuries is enthusiastically debated in Iceland, not only among scholars and scientists but also by the general public. This is one of the reasons why Iceland is such a fascinating place in which to study the interaction between nature and culture.