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Sound and independent information
on the environment

Iceland

Land use (Iceland)

Why should we care about this issue

Topic
Land Land
Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

Iceland covers an area of approximately 103 000 km². Land area below 200 m is 24 % of the total and over half lies above 400 m a.s.l. Iceland is sparsely populated (320 000 inhabitants) with only approximately 3 inh./square km. The majority of the inhabitants, approximately 90 %, live on the coast and less than 1000 live above 200 m. A vast part of Iceland is thus the unpopulated central highlands. Almost 88 % of the total area is natural and semi-natural: heathlands 35 %, bare rocks 23 %, sparsely vegetated areas 13 % and glaciers 10.5 % (1).

The first settlers who ventured to Iceland over 1100 years ago came to a fertile land. Vegetation may have covered 60 % of the country, and woodlands, mainly birch (lat. Betula pubescens), covered at least 25 % of the land area. The trees sheltered loose soils of volcanic origin. However, the woods were cut, burned and grazed for survival and soon declined rapidly. This was followed by serious soil erosion in many sensitive areas. Climatic deterioration in the 16th to 19th centuries and volcanic eruptions sped up the process, that was at its peak around the turn of the 19th century, threatening many districts of Iceland. About 60 % of the original vegetation may have been lost. About 96 % of the tree cover (trees and scrubs) has been lost, and trees now cover only 1 % of Iceland. Organised efforts to combat soil erosion started in 1907 when the Soil Conservation Service of Iceland was established.

 

The importance of vegetation and soil reclamation in Iceland lies in the future need for land resources and biodiversity preservation. In addition, vegetation and soil recovery are powerful mitigation measures against climate change.

 

References

(1) Corine Land Classification in Iceland 2000-2006. Report in Icelandic. http://www.lmi.is/Files/Skra_0038437.pdf

 

The state and impacts

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 08 Apr 2011

Man-made areas cover 0.4 % of the total area of the country (Figure 1) where the largest surface types are classified as sport and leisure facilities (mostly settlements of summer houses and golf courses) and discontinuous urban fabric. Man-made (artificial) surfaces are very small compared to other European countries.

 

Figure 1.  Spatial distribution of man made (artificial) areas in Iceland

Figure 1.  Spatial distribution of man made (artificial) areas in Iceland (1).

Almost all urban areas are at or near the coast. More than 60 % of the inhabitants live in Reykjavík and adjacent cities in southwestern Iceland. Small inland patches of man-made surfaces are mostly areas of summer houses, but some are power plants (hydro or geothermal) (from 1).

 

Figure 2. Relative sizes of some man made (artificial) and natural land cover classes in Iceland

Figure 2. Relative sizes of some man‑made (artificial) and natural land cover classes in Iceland (1).

 

Agricultural areas cover 2.4 % of the country and are classified into Pastures (97 %), very small patches of non-irrigated arable land and into land under Complex Cultivation Patterns (1).

Between 2000 and 2006, some 0.62 % of Iceland changed its land cover types. The most prominent changes occured in forests and semi-natural surfaces. The largest land cover change is the retreat of glaciers in the last years because of global warming. Between 2000 and 2006 the glaciers shrank by 180 km2 or 1.63 % which is an annual reduction of 0.27 % (1).

 Figure 3. Spatial distribution of land cover changes in Iceland between 2000 and 2006. The most obvious changes are due to melting (decrease) of the icecaps and spatial fluctuations of some of the glacial rivers

Figure 3. Spatial distribution of land cover changes in Iceland between 2000 and 2006. The most obvious changes are due to melting (decrease) of the icecaps and spatial fluctuations of some of the glacial rivers (from 1).

 

Iceland experienced a period of economic upswing after 2003. Initially spurred by investments in the aluminium and power sectors, the annual GDP growth reached over 7 % in 2004-2005 (2). The planning/building and construction activities related to the upswing had much influence on land-use. Between 2000 and 2006, artificial surfaces increased by 64 km2; urban sprawl by 10 %, industrial and commercial sites by 20 %, new summer house areas and golf courses (sport and leisure) by 15 % and several construction sites for residential and industrial districts and a new hydropower plant in eastern Iceland, by 1055 %! (1)

 

References

(1) Corine Land Classification in Iceland 2000-2006. Report in Icelandic. http://www.lmi.is/Files/Skra_0038437.pdf

(2) Economy of Iceland. Report in English. http://www.sedlabanki.is/lisalib/getfile.aspx?itemid=6372

The key drivers and pressures

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

Population growth, as a key driver for increase in man-made areas, has been highest in the capital area, with lower or even negative trend in other parts of the country (1). Increasing economic growth is another driving factor for land cover changes as increasing population and income is a driver for house building and diverse related service activities. In a low-density area like Iceland it will take some time for certain developments to impact on the land cover registration, except in times of economic upswing. One population-connected driver is the upgrade of the road transport infrastructure from single-lane roads to double-lane highways as is planned from the capital area.

 

Other significant drivers for increase in man-made land cover are new industrial construction sites, industrial plants and power plants (hydro and geothermal). 

 

However, the most significant driver for change in land cover types 2000-2006 in Iceland seems to be climate change and the consequence, a melting of the icecaps.

 

References

(1) Corine Land Classification in Iceland 2000-2006. Report in Icelandic. http://www.lmi.is/Files/Skra_0038437.pdf

The 2020 outlook

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 08 Apr 2011

The international outlook is for increased climate change in the near future and continued melting of icecaps.

 

Growing population, higher income and more leisure time are pressures for urban sprawl and an increase in the number of summer houses and more leisure activity. The outlook for population development is a decrease or stagnation for the next four or five years due to migration of foreign labour and some emigration of nationals. The population decrease in 2009 was 0.7 %.

 

Figure 1. Population (1 January,( 4)) trend and outlook 2000 to 2020. A bend in the trend of the population growth is foreseen for the next four-five years

 

Figure 1. Population (1 January) trend and outlook 2000 to 2020. A bend in the trend of the population growth is foreseen for the next four-five years.

Existing and planned responses

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

A new nature conservation strategy 2009-2013 was passed by the Icelandic Althingi in February 2010. The strategy focuses on protection of species, habitats and ecosystems in line with international agreements. In Iceland, 96 areas, of which 19 are within urban areas and of a total size of 19.500 km2 are protected under the framework of the act on nature conservation or by special law. The largest is Vatnajökulsþjóðgarður (Vatnajökull National Park) established in June 2008. In the new nature conservation strategy 2009–2013, additional 13 areas and sites are listed for protection.

 

Number of other strategies and schemas exists to protect land, land types and biodiversity:

·         The Soil Conservation Strategy 2003-2014

·         Conservation and recovery of birch woods in Iceland (1).

·         Strategy for recovery of drained wetland areas. The policy aims at recovering as much as possible of the wetland areas to improve biodiversity and slow the release of greenhouse gases (2).

 

References

(1) Conservation and recovery of birch woods in Iceland. Report in Icelandic. http://www.umhverfisraduneyti.is/media/PDF_skrar/Birkiskogar.pdf

(2) Strategy for recovery of drained wetland areas. Report in Icelandic. http://www.sjavarutvegsraduneyti.is/media/Skyrslur/votlendisskyrsla.pdf

Disclaimer

The country assessments are the sole responsibility of the EEA member and cooperating countries supported by the EEA through guidance, translation and editing.

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