The Iceland Guide

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The land and the people

The natural world: Flora

One of the lasting effects of the last glacial age in Iceland was that many of the plant species were wiped out: it is known that only about half the present number of about 450 vascular plants (plants with stems) survived the onslaught of the glaciers; the others gradually arrived with driftwood, birds and man. More primitive plants are well represented and today about 450 species of lichen and 550 species of moss are found on the island. The flora is essentially North European: 97% of the country's vascular plants are also found in Norway. The number of varieties found in the west is smaller than that found in the east as the west`s climate is influenced by its proximity to Greenland.

At the time of the Settlement (874–930) as much as one–third of the country was covered with woodland. Since then, however, much of this has been destroyed by careless overgrazing, tree–felling for ships and houses and for the charcoal needed by blacksmiths. For many centuries driftwood was an important source of timber for housebuilding following the destruction of many of the woods in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

Volcanic eruptions have also ruined much land, both by lava and ash smothering vegetation and by poisonous fumes harming the remaining plant life. More recently the "little ice age" between 1600 and 1900 meant that the glaciers' advance covered many of the wooded areas, and now these tracts of land are covered in huge piles of sand and gravel. These sands are almost completely bare, and the constantly shifting streams of meltwater make it very difficult for plants to establish themselves. Farther towards the sea, the surf lashes the land, and since the shoreline is usually made up of small, water-polished pebbles that are always on the move, the plants have a hard fight to get any kind of grip. All of these factors have meant that today only about one–fifth of the country has plant cover, while the huge gravel expanses of the highlands are exceptionally barren.

Little remains of the original woods, though these are being replanted, for example in Hallormsstaður near the eastern fjords. New trees (pines and spruces) are being imported from other mountainous northern countries where the flora is similar to that found in Iceland, but it will take time to make up for the centuries of misuse. At present birch is the most common tree and a stunted variety is found on many of the old lavafields where there is now some soil and a little shelter between the blocks of lava. These lavafields are very porous, so little surface water manages to gather, except perhaps where clay is brought down by meltwater streams and provides a non–porous bed on which some of the hardier plants can prosper. These vast expanses often have a thick carpet of moss on them, particularly in areas of block lava where there are many sheltered crevices in which the plants can take hold. Lichens too, are commonly found in this type of environment, especially since the air is free from any pollution.

In comparison, the areas covered with ashes cannot give as much protection to plant life, but some seeding from aircraft is being tried to help to stabilise the ground and develop some soil. If these plants can take root then they can take advantage of a soil that is poor in organic material, but rich in minerals that have come from the volcanoes.

The cold climate in the highlands means that the upper layer of continuous vegetation is very low, about 700m, and the tree–line is no more than 300m. Below the hills much of the land is desert or semi–desert with plant life exceptionally sparse in the exposed and wind–blown areas, however in some sheltered spots there are oases, often near warm springs. Some of today's deserts used to support some life, but over the centuries the soil has often been destroyed both by nature and by man; unfortunately it has only been in recent years that man's role in this has been fully recognized and even today overgrazing provides a continuing threat to the country's sparse vegetation.

What`s in the website ?


The land and the people

The first explorers
The Age of the Settlement
The conversion to Christianity
The discovery of Greenland and America
The collapse of the Commonwealth
The Dark Ages
The nineteenth century
The twentieth century
Culture in the Icelandic environment
Old Icelandic literature
Eddic and skaldic poetry
The Sagas
Later literature
Modern literature
Painting, sculpture and music
The Icelanders
Traditional living conditions
The seasons
Changes in the modern world
Independent minds
Superstition, morality and the media
The land
On the edge of Europe
The shape of the land
The volcanoes
The glaciers
The natural world
The climate
The economy and infrastructure
Industry and energy