Soil Erosion in Iceland

Iceland view

Iceland is a northern European country known for its fire and ice landscape. (Photo credit: Mirko Macari/Shutterstock)

Though it may be known for its desolate fire and ice landscape, Iceland’s terrain wasn’t always so bleak. In fact, prior to its discovery by the Vikings, over half of this country was once covered in trees, shrubs, and grasses.

Iceland is well known for its unique landscape of glaciers, geysers, and volcanoes. Though today nearly one-third of the country is desert, that wasn’t always the case. In fact, prior to its discovery  and subsequent settlement by the Vikings, much of this northern European country was covered in lush green vegetation. So what happened?

The Vikings brought more than just people to populate the area we now call Iceland — they also brought a lot of sheep. These herbivorous animals are voracious eaters and as the sheep ate their way across the countryside, they left a decimated landscape in their wake. But the introduction of sheep wasn’t the only reason that Iceland’s landscape changed. Deforestation of birch woodlands to build settlements also contributed to the region’s unprecedented amounts of soil erosion. Prior to human settlement, it is estimated that 20 percent of Iceland was covered by birch forests; today over 94 percent of those woodlands have disappeared.

Iceland’s unique soil composition is heavily influenced by the region’s volcanoes and therefore contains a lot of volcanic ash. In a wind tunnel test, scientists found that only soil samples from the moon blew as easily as Icelandic soil. Because Icelandic soil blows so easily, desertification is a major problem in the country.

Even though humans and livestock have had a major impact on Iceland’s landscape, they aren’t the only ones to blame for the country’s soil erosion issues. Frequent volcanoes, glacial river floods, and katabatic winds (that is, intense high-density winds that flow downward from areas of high elevation) all contribute to the country’s soil erosion problems.

Icelanders have long recognized the need to take action against soil erosion and desertification. Iceland first passed legislation to deal with this issue in 1895. However, this initial legislation wasn’t particularly effective, and it would take another decade before real action was taken. The enactment of the Forestry and Protection Against Soil Erosion Act in 1907 led to the establishment of forestry and soil conservation agencies, which maintain an active and important presence in Iceland today.

The main roles of the Soil Conservation Service of Iceland (SCSI) are to (1) combat desertification, sand encroachment, and other soil erosion, and (2) promote sustainable land use and reclaim and restore degraded land. To help meet their goals, members of the SCSI advise farmers on sustainable agriculture management methods. They also are actively seeking to reclaim desertified areas by “bombing” remote areas with fertilizers and seeds and planting tree seedlings throughout the country.

More to Explore
Rolling Back Iceland’s Big Desert
Catastrophic Soil Erosion in Iceland: Impact of Long-term Climate Change [abstract]

Country: Iceland

Location: Iceland is located in northern Europe between the Greenland Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean.

Area: 103,000 sq km (land and water) (slightly smaller than Kentucky)

Climate: Iceland has a temperate climate with mild and windy winters and damp and cool summers.

Terrain: The terrain of Iceland includes plateaus, icefields, mountains, and coastline indented by fjords and bays.

Natural Resources: Diatomite, fish, hydropower, geothermal power

Economics: $12.95 billion (est. 2012)

Environmental Issues: Water pollution

Source: CIA – The World Factbook (

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