Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Greening of Iceland

This week at an American Geophysical Union conference in Iceland, my friend Anna Maria Agustsdottir gave a talk on the importance of planting trees in Iceland to repair the damage caused by volcanic eruptions. (See news coverage here.It’s a project she and her husband, Magnus Johannsson, have been working on for a long time at Iceland’s Landgræðslan ríkisins, or Soil Conservation Service. In 2000, I went out in the field with Anna and Magnus, in the shadow of the volcano Hekla, to report on their work for the alumni magazine of Penn State University. 

Here’s an excerpt from that story: Comparing it to the AGU report, you can see that Anna and Magnus and their colleagues have accomplished a lot in ten years. 

After an hour of bouncing us down a dusty road in his high-powered SUV, Magnus swerves over the berm and inches across the lava plain, over black sand and large rocks blasted there by the volcano Hekla, that snow-capped eminence over our left shoulders that people in the Middle Ages knew as the Mouth of Hell. I’m taking the grand tour of the research plots of Iceland’s Soil Conservation Service with Magnus, his wife Anna, and their children, five-year-old Sara and infant Snorri. The same tour, Magnus says, that he gave to Deng Xiao-Ping’s granddaughter the week before. For his Ph.D. at Penn State, Magnus spent his summers growing zucchini and testing the viability of its seeds. Anna’s dissertation was on volcanoes. Back home in Iceland, they have a much harder row to hoe: growing grass—or anything—to stop the blowing sand.

There’s nothing for miles here, it seems, but black sand and snowy peaks. Volcanoes erupt frequently. An earthquake registering 6.5 on the Richter scale struck the week before I came. According to Kristin Vogfjord, another Penn State alumna and the earthquake specialist at Iceland’s National Weather Service, the epicenter of the quake was just where Magnus is trying to grow grass. His fields lie atop a major fault, where two tectonic plates beneath the continents are pulling apart. On an average day, the area is shaken by 20 to 30 tiny quakes; today there are 3,000. One of Kristin’s colleagues, monitoring the fault, registers the movements each night. Said Kristin, “It’s almost as if you can see the tectonic plates moving in her data.” The earthquakes are often precursors to eruptions. In the last 20 years, Mount Hekla has erupted three times, coating the ground each time with six inches or more of rubbly, sandy black pumice.

Yet Magnus is undeterred. “We’re fixing the land,” he exclaims, waving a hand out the car window.

Far in the distance I see specks of color against the vast expanse of gray. It’s a small cadre of workers, among them Magnus’s 16-year-old brother. As we park and walk toward them, I begin to laugh. Each of the teens has a flat of lupine seedlings, spindly plants about four inches tall. Each also has a potato planter: like a coffee can on a stick. They’re spending the summer trudging back and forth across the black sand plain, six steps, plant a lupine, six steps, plant a lupine. Today the midges are thick. The teens wear face nets, but Magnus and I are fanning our hands like crazy. The kids and Anna have stayed in the car. Six steps, plant a lupine. It’s like the summer job from hell.

Magnus sees the humor, but he’s still miffed that I’m laughing. “In a reclamation project you want your lupine,” he insists. A spire of blue or purple or rose-colored flowers, lupine is a legume; it takes nitrogen out of the air and fixes it in the soil, making its own fertilizer. “We’re creating dunes by planting melgresi—Icelandic lyme grass—perpendicular to the direction of the drifting sand,” Magnus continues, “but we need to use fertilizer year after year for three years to get it to grow. Legumes are the answer to this. We’ve tried native Icelandic species such as white clover or sea pea, but they’re not as vigorous as lupine.”

We drive a little closer to the volcano, and now, indeed, I see that the peculiar Icelandic persistence is paying off: The sands have taken on a tinge of green. They were sown and fertilized four months before Hekla erupted last February [2000], and now the grass shoots are poking up through the new lava and ash. “Ashfall is not a problem in heavily vegetated areas,” Magnus says, “but here we get pumice blowing and drifting like snow. That’s quite a different matter.” Only the native lyme grass and a new Alaskan import, Bering hair grass, can stand having sand blown over them. “They just push up through it.”

When the first Viking settlers arrived in Iceland in 874, the medieval Icelandic sagas say, the land was green “from the mountains to the sea.” Birch woodlands blanketed at least 25 percent of the country; they now cover only 1 percent. Sites of old farmsteads, once grassy and full of sheep, are now black sand deserts. Nearly 40 percent of the country is threatened by desertification. The cause of the problem, Magnus says, is a mix of volcanic action, wind, weather, and human activity.

Icelanders can’t control the first three, so they’re working on the fourth: reducing the grazing herds and planting trees. As one Soil Conservation Service brochure puts it, “The Icelanders still owe their country more than half of the original vegetation cover.”

I like the way they put that: Icelanders owe their country. It’s a lesson other nations need to learn as well. From South Africa to northern China, desertification directly affects some 250 million people, almost four percent of the world population, according to a news release from the United Nations Environment Program last June [2000]. The Icelanders’ experiment could set an example around the world.

Join me again next Wednesday at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.

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