Air pollution (Iceland)
Why should we care about this issue
- Air pollution
It is a well‑known fact that air pollution affects people’s health. Studies on that are few in Iceland but those that exist indicate that particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) cause the most risk to health. Air pollution can also affect the health of animals and plants as well as cause corrosion to buildings and electronic equipment.
The state and impacts
In general, air quality is good in Iceland and the main concern is particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and lately H2S. The country is sparsely populated. In January 2009, the number of inhabitants was 319 000, and the area is 103 000 km2. The only real urban area is the Reykjavík area where 198 000 live in an area of about 80 km2. Consequently, the only place where typical urban pollution is to be found is in the Reykjavík area.
The main source of PM pollution is traffic and especially the use of studded tyres in winter time. The annual mean value during the last years in the Reykjavik area is around 20 µg/m3 (Figure 1) but individual one-hour peaks can reach several hundred during winter rush hours. The biggest town outside the Reykjavík area, Akureyri, has a population of about 17 000. Akureyri and many other smaller villages at the seaside are located in narrow fjords surrounded by high mountains and in calm weather, levels of PM10 from traffic can become quite high. In smaller villages in the countryside, air quality is generally good but gravel roads and the use of sand to prevent icy road conditions can cause considerable PM peaks in these areas.
On the south coast of Iceland and in the north-east part of the highlands are large sandy areas. In strong dry winds, clouds of dust can be blown into urban areas often resulting in very high peaks of PM10. This can happen several times a year but mainly in spring.
NO2 hardly ever reaches the EU health limit value for one hour which is 200 µg/m3 and only a few times a year over the Icelandic limit value for one hour which is 110 µg/m3. The annual mean for NO2 in Reykjavík in recent years has been around 20 and 25 µg/m3 (Figure 3).
Concentration of ozone is usually low and hardly ever reaches the information threshold which is 180 µg/m3 for one hour.
SO2 pollution is of little concern, the annual mean during the last ten years has been under 5 µg/m3 (Figure 4).
The concentration of H2S which has increased significantly in the Reykjavík area after installation of geothermal power plants close to the city is of concern. The highest 24-hour value so far is 170 µg/m3 which is over the 150 µg/m3 WHO guidelines for 24 hours. Hydrogen sulfide can affect people’s health and it can cause corrosion to electronic goods. There are already indications that there is an increase in damage of electronic equipment in the capital area due to hydrogen sulfide.
Sulfur and nitrogen deposition is low in Iceland and transboundary pollution is the dominant source of that deposition in Iceland (1). Icelandic soil is based on basalt with high weathering rate, which gives high critical loads in all areas and acid deposition never exceeds critical load.
Figure 1. Temporal trend in air pollution in Reykjavík for particulate matter (PM10, in µg/m3). Yearly average.
Figure 2. temporal trend in number of days exceeding EU´s daily limit value for particulate matter (PM10) of 50 µg/m3.
Figure 3. Temporal trend in air pollution in Reykjavík for NO2 (Annual mean in µg/m3).
Figure 4. Temporal trend in air pollution in Reykjavik for SO2 (annual mean in µg/m3). EU limit value for the protection of Ecosystems (20 µg/m3) shown (orange line)
(1) Klein,H.,Benedictow., Fagerli,H. (2007) Transboundary air pollution by main pollutants (S, N, O3) and PM, Iceland. Norwegion Meteorological Instiute. ISSN 1890-0003.
The key drivers and pressures
Road traffic is the main source of local air pollution in urban areas in Iceland. Consequently NOx and PM are the main pollutants in urban areas.
Use of studded tyres has been widespread and, for example, in the year 2001, 55 % of particulate matter in Reykjavík on polluted days was due to the wear of asphalt (1).
Figure 1. Temporal trend in emissions of SO2 (in Gg) by sector 1990-2008. Emission from geothermal energy is on the form of H2S but is calculated as SO2. (2)
Figure 2. Temporal trend in emissions of NOx ( in Gg) by sector 1990‑2008 (2).
Figure 3. Temporal trend in emissions of NMVOC (non-methane volatile organic compounds) (in Gg) by sector 1990-2008 (2).
(1) Method for determining the composition of airborn particle pollution. Composition of particle air pollution in Reykjavik. Report in English. http://english.ust.is/media/skyrslur2003/uppruni_svifryks_eng.pdf
(2) Emissions of greenhouse gases in Iceland from 1990 to 2008. National Inventory Report 2010. Report in English. http://www.ust.is/media/fraedsluefni/ICELAND_NIR_2010.pdf
The 2020 outlook
The outlook is for good air quality. The use of studded tyres has decreased and the consequence is that PM levels have decreased. As a result of the economic depression, traffic has also decreased from 2008-2010.
Further developments are expected in new geothermal power plants with increased emission of hydrogen sulfide until the year 2014, but in that year stricter exceedance limits will enter into force.
Existing and planned responses
In Iceland, municipalities are responsible for actions against local air pollution.
In Reykjavík, by far the biggest municipality, the local authorities take up a media campaign in the beginning of every winter against the use of studded tyres. The result is that the use of studded tyres in Reykjavík has fallen from 67 % in March 2002 to 39 % in March 2010.
Reykjavík has published an action plan against air pollution (1).
At national level, guidelines to decrease particulate matter due to the use of studded tyres and because of soot from engines have been published (2).
Icelandic regulations relating to air pollution are based on EU directives. In addition, in June 2010 a new legal act (regulation) that stipulates limit values for hydrogen sulphide in ambient air was issued in Iceland, but no such limit values for hydrogen sulphide are in place in EU. The objective of this regulation is to prevent harmful effects of hydrogen sulphide on human health and the environment as a whole.
To encourage sale on more environmentally friendly cars, taxes on cars that use methane or hydrogen as an energiser have been abolish.
National Strategy on air quality has been published (3)
(1) Action plan against air pollution in Reykjavík. Report in Icelandic. http://www.rvk.is/Portaldata/1/Resources/umhverfissvid/vi_brag_s__tlun_loftmengun.pdf
(2) Hermann Sveinbjörnsson, Eiríkur Bjarnason, Lárus Sveinsson, Þór Tómasson, Þorsteinn Jóhannsson, Þórir Ingason. (2007). Mitigation guidelines to decrease particulate matter due to the use of studded tyres and because of soot from engines. Report in Icelandic. Ministry for the Environment and Ministry of Transport.
(3) National strategy on Air quality, Environment Agency of Iceland. Report in Icelandic. http://www.ust.is/media/fraedsluefni/utgefid/landsaatlun_um_loftgadi_www.pdf
For references, please go to www.eea.europa.eu/soer or scan the QR code.
This briefing is part of the EEA's report The European Environment - State and Outlook 2015. The EEA is an official agency of the EU, tasked with providing information on Europe’s environment.
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