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Iceland Seeks to Restore Soils, Forests


Humans are slowly reshaping the planet by warming the atmosphere, but some of our activities have had a much more profound impact on the landscape. For example, civilization has transformed Iceland from a forested island covered with rich soil to a desert across much of its surface.

For our Climate Connection series with National Geographic, NPR's Richard Harris spent a day with two of Iceland's leading soil scientists - part of a major national effort to restore Iceland's environment and soak up some of the carbon that's warming the world.

RICHARD HARRIS: The first thing you'll notice in the Icelandic countryside is there are essentially no trees anywhere. And that's not a quirk of geography. Much of Iceland is a desert - man-made desert.

To get a feel for the mood of this stark, barren terrain, listen to the music of 20-year-old Olafur Arnalds.

(Soundbite of music)

HARRIS: This CD, "Eulogy for Evolution," is Arnalds' visceral response to his surroundings. Iceland's landscape has been worn away by sheep and horses for centuries, and literally scattered to the winds. Arnalds' father has a more direct relationship with the land.

Dr. ANDRES ARNALDS (Assistant Director, Icelandic Soil Conservation Service): I'm Andres Arnalds, the assistant director of the Soil Conservation Service.

HARRIS: So when you look out over this landscape, help me understand what you're seeing. For example, there is this green patch on the side of the mountain that kind of looks like a toupee or something. It's sort of standing there on its own and it's surrounded by barren dirt. What is that?

Dr. ARNALDS: This is one of those silent witnesses, a remnant of the original vegetation.

HARRIS: Andres Arnalds has dedicated his career to healing this north Atlantic island, so as his brother who is also named Olafur.

Mr. OLAFUR ARNALDS: I create the problems. I study soil erosion and so forth and he solves the problems.

HARRIS: Olafur and Andres Arnalds spend a wet and windy October day, driving us across southwestern Iceland, showing us these two sides of the story -degradation but also a story of restoration. It's a story that could serve as an object lesson for other environmental issues such as climate change. Olafur Arnalds takes us out to a sandy gray plain that stretches for miles in all directions.

(Soundbite of digging)

HARRIS: Arnalds digs a hole with his heel and scoops up a handful of the grainy dirt that spreads across this whole valley.

Dr. ARNALDS: Soil is a wonderful thing. And one thing it does is telling stories.

HARRIS: Iceland's soil show that when Vikings first arrived on these shores about 1,100 years ago with their sheep and their cattle, much of the island was covered with lush forests of birch growing in deep, rich soils - but not for long.

Dr. ARNALDS: The vegetation cover was dramatically altered within a very short period of time after Vikings came to Iceland. We had maybe 25 percent woodland cover at the time of settlement. But hundred years ago, it was almost nothing left, almost nothing.

HARRIS: More than 30 percent of Iceland is now desert, and half of the island soils are badly eroded.

Dr. ARNALDS: Those numbers are actually quite staggering to you. You will not find them anywhere else in the industrialized world, for example.

HARRIS: Icelanders have done far more to damage their island than the rest of us have done to our environment through climate change - at least so far. And as severe as the problems are in Iceland, people are doing something to heal the land.

Mr. ARNALDS: (Speaking in foreign language)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Speaking in foreign language)

Mr. ARNALDS: (Speaking in foreign language)

HARRIS: Olafur Arnalds' closed his fleece cap over his nearly shaven head and strides against the steady wind across a research plot. Two scientists clad in thick orange jumpsuits lug scientific gear across the land. This land has been fertilized and seeded, and these women are now measuring the growth of tiny willow plants.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Icelandic spoken)

Unidentified Woman #3: Yeah.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Icelandic spoken)

Unidentified Woman #3: Yeah.

HARRIS: Cold work today, huh?

Unidentified Woman #3: Yeah.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Icelandic spoken)

HARRIS: A century ago, farmers thought they needed to push their land to the limit in order to eke out in existence. Iceland was barely making it as a country of sheep farmers and fishermen, but the environmental damage was only making life worse here. So 100 years ago, Iceland established its Soil Conservation Service. Andres Arnalds says, in the intervening century, the country has stopped the most economically damaging problems such as rapidly encroaching sands.

Dr. ARNALDS: I would say today, most of the soil erosion that was threatening, say, (unintelligible) has been stopped, although there's plenty other severe soil erosion left in Iceland.

HARRIS: Nowadays, revegetation and soil restoration is increasingly seen as a moral matter. People even plant trees as a hobby. Andres Arnalds says conservation has also becoming part of Iceland's response to climate change. Centuries of soil erosion put soil into the air and long with it all the rich carbon that had built up there overtime.

Dr. ARNALDS: So there is a big need to return some of this lost carbon dioxide but to the land. And that is what we are aiming at.

HARRIS: Olafur Arnalds says, in principle, soil restoration can soak up more carbon than all the cars, trucks and fishing boats in Iceland spew out into the air each year.

Mr. ARNALDS: The potential is there actually that we could be as zero-emission country if we wanted to.

(Soundbite of car door closing)

HARRIS: As night falls on this lunar landscape, we drive back toward Iceland's capital Reykjavik with Olafur Arnalds. He turns up his favorite Lucinda Williams song.

(Soundbite of song "What If")

Ms. LUCINDA WILLIAMS (Singer): (Singing) If mountains fell in slivers and the sky began to bleed.

HARRIS: The Arnalds brothers can take some satisfaction in what they've achieved already. Olafur Arnalds work defined the shocking extent of Iceland's soil erosion problems, and his brother has seen to the recovery of many thousands of acres. Still, Olafur Arnalds says they have a long way to go.

Mr. ARNALDS: Some of these desert areas of Iceland are even still being grazed to erosion areas. It's amazing that we still do, but it's a fact. So there's more to environmental policy than understanding the nature and processes that also boils down to tradition and politics.

HARRIS: And that's a lesson not just for soil conservation in Iceland but for global issues such as climate change as well.

Richard Harris, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.