Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Iceland's Deserts

 "There's a difference between a natural desert and a manmade desert," Magnus said as we crossed an imaginary line in the sand on our way to the hot spring area Landmannalaugar.

I've long loved Iceland for its contrasts. Not just the clash of ice and fire that everyone remarks upon, but the juxtaposition of jewel-green fields and jagged black lava, of fertile horse pastures and sand-blasted wastelands. But after a day spent with Magnús Jóhannsson, the botanist who runs Mudshark Adventure Tours [see] out of Hella, in Iceland's south, I realized my perception of Iceland's beauty was rather romantic--and more than a little bit skewed.

I've known Magnús and his wife, Anna María Ágústsdóttir, since before they earned their Ph.D.s at Penn State some years ago. I've visited them several times in Iceland and heard about their work at Landgræslan ríkisins, Iceland's soil conservation service.

Apparently, I wasn't paying attention.

Twice in the 1990s, while they were still in school, I rode on horseback from a farm near Hella around the volcano Hekla to the hotspring area at Landmannalaugar. Once we had six days of driving rain (read about that trip here: 2/29/12). The second trip I got badly sunburned and rode like Jesse James with a bandanna tied around my nose and mouth to filter out the suffocating dust.

I'd always assumed the deserts of blowing black sand I'd ridden across were inescapable--a constantly fought, constantly to-be-reckoned-with natural hazard of this volcanically active land. They're not. In many places, Magnus pointed out, as we drove a similar route to Landmannalaugar in the Mudshark Land Rover, these deserts are manmade. They are both preventable and capable of being restored to a healthy green.

True, volcanic eruptions do periodically blanket some areas in ash. But the ash doesn't necessarily kill off the vegetation, I learned from reading a scientific paper Anna María recently published in the journal Natural Hazards [get link]. Only if the area is already under stress--from overgrazing, usually--is the ashfall catastrophic. A healthy ecosystem can bounce back.

Our tour began in the town of Hella, where one of Magnús and Anna María's neighbors keeps a garden of apple trees (a curiosity in Iceland). We passed the headquarters of the soil conservation service on a road bordered by tall imported trees. Fields of barley and rapeseed rippled in the wind (quite uncommon in Iceland, where the only reliable crop for generations has been hay). A demonstration forest hugged a small hill.

When we entered the desert I had ridden through in the 1990s, I was surprised to see islands of native birch had established themselves. In other places, the soil conservation service had seeded acres of black sand with Alaskan lupine, a nitrogen-fixing legume, to enrich the soil, and with native lyme grass, to stabilize the dunes.

We passed a waterfall I knew well from my rides, Troll Woman's Leap. I had a picture on my office wall back home of our horse herd resting at that very spot: Black sand spread from the riverbanks in every direction, our many-colored herd looking bright in contrast. Now the place was transformed with grass and flowers.

Then we crossed through a gate in a fence, and the vegetation disappeared. The black sand deserts I'd ridden through reappeared. We'd left the soil conservation area, and entered a section of the highlands where sheep were allowed to graze. We saw a ewe and two lambs here and there. Nothing you could call a "flock," just the rare family of animals. Yet it was enough to suppress regrowth. These were the manmade deserts Magnús had referred to.

At some point (was there a gate? I don't recall) we transitioned smoothly into the natural desert: We had reached the highlands, where snow and cold defeat all but the alpine flowers (blooming in lush profusion in sheltered spots) and the hardy moss, which did its best to soften the jagged lumps of lava.

Like the many tourists we met at Landmannalaugar, we marveled at the vast range of color in the rocks, at the astonishing sulfur vents reeking of rotten egg, at the steam rising from the river, and at the stark beauty of the bleak, lake-filled landscape in Iceland's harsh interior.

When the first settlers came to Iceland in the ninth century, scientists have determined, birch woodlands covered 25% of the island. The settlers cut the trees to make charcoal. They burned the scrubby forests to clear land for planting. They introduced grazing animals--horses, cows, sheep, goats, and pigs--which kept the forests from regenerating. The winds ate at the edges of the overgrazed fields, and the volcanoes did their part, periodically coating the landscape with ash. Over centuries, the stresses accumulated: cutting, burning, grazing, wind erosion, ash fall...

The story of Iceland's desertification is well told at the soil conservation service's new museum, Sagnagardur [see their website at], just east of Hella, where these two photos were taken. The bottom one shows a surprisingly large piece of petrified wood found in Iceland.

The museum tells, too, the new story of re-greening the land. Now Iceland's forested area is a little over 1% of the country--and growing steadily.

Anyone like me who is enthralled by Iceland's beauty, and who wonders why it looks the way it does, should spend an instructive hour at Sagnagardur. Better yet, take Magnús's Mudshark Ecosystems tour [see] or, like I did, his Landmannalaugar tour []

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