What do sheep and Vikings have in common?
More than you’d think, actually. They both settled in Iceland about 871 AD, give or take a couple of years. Until the Norsemen arrived with their sheep, the largest land mammal to be found in Iceland was the Arctic fox.
Humans and sheep eat quite a lot – as it turned out, more than the local ecology was prepared to handle. This was not an immediately obvious problem, however, because the first settlements were quite small. The first settlers brought only small numbers of sheep, which provided wool for clothing and other textiles. The early Icelanders foraged and fished for their food, and supplemented their diets with whatever they could find. Some of the country’s most memorable dishes, including the indescribably-pungent putrefied shark hákarl, seem to have been born of a very practical ethos: well, there is not much food here, so if we can catch something we should probably try to eat it.
Apart from being newcomers to Iceland, it turned out Vikings and sheep had something else in common: they were both very bad for forests. You notice it right away: lots of beautiful, hospitable land where the tallest foliage barely tops five feet. There’s a running joke here that goes something like this:
Q: What do you do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest?
A: Stand up!
Most of the trees you’ll see when you visit Iceland are nursery transplants, because the human settlers turned out to be the second-most effective deforestation force this island has ever seen, ranking just behind glaciers and well ahead of volcanoes.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Ice Ages buried Iceland under vast glacial floes more than a mile thick. Imagine standing on the ground, looking at the highest building you’ve ever seen, and knowing that during the Ice Ages the very top of it would still be under thousands of feet of ice. Not a hospitable environment. Pretty bad for the forests, too – the glaciers scoured Iceland clean as they ebbed and flowed down from the north, carving canyons and fjords all across the land.
But during the interglacial periods, the trees came back, and after the last glaciers retreated about 10,000 years ago, the birch in particular made Iceland their home. When the settlers arrived a bit more than 1100 years ago, birch forests with trees up to 50 feet high covered 25-40% of Iceland’s land area.
Naturally, the settlers began cutting down the trees around their settlements: clearing land for farming, using the wood for houses and boats and for heating. And their sheep were the coup de grace for the forests.
As the settlements grew in size, they became reliant on flocks of sheep which were by the early 1300s a staple food stock. Sheep like to eat, and they’re not fussy about what they graze on – but apparently a nice, tender birch sapling tastes better than a few blades of grass. The trees that the settlers were cutting down were not replaced with new growth because their flocks of sheep were inflicting a sort of wooly Armageddon on the forestlands. As of the latest livestock census, there were more than twice as many sheep in Iceland as people.
Deforestation continued in Iceland through the mid-Twentieth Century, as Icelanders relied on wood for fuel for cooking and heating. Iceland has no coal or oil deposits: geologically, the island hasn’t been here long enough for such fossil fuels to form. By the time tourism became an essential part of the economy, visitors might have been puzzled by the many references to forests in Icelandic place names.
Well, they might have been puzzled if they spoke Icelandic. Which they didn’t, so they probably didn’t notice.
Starting in 1930, Icelanders began building district heating systems to use heat from the earth: water from aquifers heated by the magma a few miles below the surface. The water, with natural temperatures of 150-200 oF, was piped to buildings that needed to be kept warm: first to a schoolhouse, then to other public buildings, and increasingly to private homes. By the mid-1940s, almost 3,000 homes in Reykjavik relied on district heating rather than burning fuel.
In the 1970s, the OPEC oil embargo and the Iran crisis sent fossil fuel prices skyrocketing. The Icelandic government concluded that the country could not thrive if it had to rely on the outside world to keep from freezing in the winter, and burning trees and peat would never keep up with the energy demands of a growing population. Icelanders began a push to develop geothermal power for heating and for production of electricity. The clouds of smoke and soot that frequently blanketed the cities disappeared. More than 99% of homes in Reykjavik and the surrounding communities are heated by water taken from 52 wells in the capital region that produce 540 MW of thermal energy. Additional heating comes from the large power stations on Mount Hengill, a few miles outside the city.
As for the trees: since 1899, Icelanders have been working to reforest their island. The cost is substantial, and the population available to plant and tend to new forests is not that large. Despite the highest birth rate in Europe, there are still only just a little over 330,000 Icelanders – about a one-thousandth the population of the U.S. Planting trees is important, but not the same matter of survival that cutting them down was for the early settlers.
The work is made even slower in part because the climate doesn’t favor rapid growth, and in part because the new forests have to be protected from free-range sheep. The Icelandic Forest Service estimates that it takes 70 years to reforest one percent of the country’s landmass, meaning that Iceland will return its pre-settlement afforestation in 2,695 years.
Until then, if you get lost in the woods – stand up!
Cover image: Icelandic Forest Service. All other images by author unless otherwise specified in captions.