Iceland Iceland Iceland Iceland

Desertification Iceland


Soil erosion and desertification is a problem in Iceland. In Iceland the human impact on ecosystems is strong. About 65% of the entire island is estimated to have been covered with vegetation at the time of settlement in the year 874. Today, only about 25% of Iceland is vegetated. This reduction in vegetative cover is the result of a combination of harsh climate and intensive land and resource utilization by a farming and agrarian society over 11 centuries (1).

A pollen record from Iceland confirms the rapid decline of birch and the expansion of grasses in 870-900 AD, a trend that continued to the present. As early as 1100 more than 90% of the original Icelandic forest was gone and by 1700 about 40% of the soils had been washed or blown away. Vast gravel-covered plains were created where once there was vegetated land. Ecosystem degradation is one of the largest environmental problems in Iceland. Vast areas have turned into deserts after over-exploitation and the speed of erosion is magnified by volcanic activity and harsh weather conditions (1).

Estimates vary as to the percentage of the island originally covered with forest and woodlands at settlement, but a range of 25 to 30% is plausible. Remnants of the former woodlands now cover less than 1,200 km2, or only about 1% of the total surface area. Around 60% of the vegetation cover is dry land vegetation and wetlands. Arable and permanent cropland amounts to approximately 1,300 km2 (1,3).

Organized forestry is considered to have started in Iceland in 1899. Reforestation through planting did increase considerably in 1990s from an average of around 1 million seedlings annually in the 1980s to 4 million in the 1990s and 5 million in the first seven years of the 2000s (1).

Climate change will help Iceland to combat desertification, sand encroachment and other soil erosion, to promote sustainable land use, and to restore degraded land. Climate conditions will improve for agriculture and forestry. Thus, as opposed to most countries in southern Europe, climate change will not be the cause of desertification but a driving force to fight it (2).


The references below are cited in full in a separate map 'References'. Please click here if you are looking for the full references for Iceland.

  1. Ministry for the Environment of Iceland (2007)
  2. Ministry for the Environment of Iceland (2010)
  3. Icelandic Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources (2018)