Iceland Seeks to Restore Soils, Forests

Human activities are having a profound impact on the Iceland landscape. It is now transformed from a forested island covered with rich soils to mostly desert. Iceland's leading soil scientists are part of a major national effort to restore the island's environment.

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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.

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Businesses See Green in Iceland's Volcano Power

Engineer Bjarni Palsson stands in front of manmade steam geyser

Engineer Bjarni Palsson stands in front of manmade steam geyser at the Krafla power plant in northern Iceland. After drilling a well thousands of feet into the ground, engineers let the steam blow out of the well head to measure its pressure and productivity. After that, they cap the well head and direct the steam into pipes that carry it down toward the power plant. Vikki Valentine/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Vikki Valentine/NPR
Steam from the Krafla power plant billows from behind a mountain. i i

Steam from the Krafla power plant billows from behind a mountain. Richard Harris/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Richard Harris/NPR
Steam from the Krafla power plant billows from behind a mountain.

Steam from the Krafla power plant billows from behind a mountain.

Richard Harris/NPR
A sheep wanders around the Krafla power plant. i i

A sheep separated from its flock wanders around the Krafla power plant. Vikki Valentine/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Vikki Valentine/NPR
A sheep wanders around the Krafla power plant.

A sheep separated from its flock wanders around the Krafla power plant.

Vikki Valentine/NPR
Asgeir Margeirsson, CEO of  Geysir Green Energy

Asgeir Margeirsson, CEO of Geysir Green Energy, is working to export Iceland's geothermal expertise to countries such as the United States and China. Richard Harris/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Richard Harris/NPR
A manmade crater at Krafla power plant. i i

The landscape around Krafla is pitted with craters -– from volcanic and manmade explosions. This crater, called "manmade hell," is left over from a steam explosion in a well gone wrong several decades ago. Richard Harris/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Richard Harris/NPR
A manmade crater at Krafla power plant.

The landscape around Krafla is pitted with craters -– from volcanic and manmade explosions. This crater, called "manmade hell," is left over from a steam explosion in a well gone wrong several decades ago.

Richard Harris/NPR
A woman swims at Blue Lagoon

Hot water piped up from underground feeds outdoor pools throughout the country. Here, a woman swims at Blue Lagoon, with a geothermal plant behind her. Dave Allocca/DMI/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Dave Allocca/DMI/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Representatives from the world's nations are starting to gather in Bali, Indonesia, for two weeks of meetings on climate change. They want to decide how to tackle the problem of rising greenhouse gases after the Kyoto agreement expires. One part of the solution will be to get more energy from sources that don't fill the air with carbon dioxide.

In Iceland, that means tapping into the Earth's own heat. This North Atlantic island is cold and frosted with glaciers, but it owes its existence to hot rock. Volcanoes continually build and reshape the landscape, and those hot rocks make an ideal energy source — one that's much cleaner and less expensive than burning fossil fuels.

Energy from these hot rocks powers lights in homes and restaurants, and provides the hot water that heats 95 percent of Iceland's homes. Icelanders even go outside in the middle of winter with almost no clothes on for laps in city swimming pools or backyard hot tubs.

Volcanic Hotspot

Iceland's austere landscape is also sprinkled with bubbling, stinky and sulfurous mud pots — an unmistakable sign that this place is alive with volcanoes.

Hot liquid rock oozes up from deep in the Earth and gradually reshapes this island. That heat is also ideal for producing electricity. And Icelanders take advantage of that. For example, they have built a power plant in the midst of a rugged black and red moonscape. The Krafla power plant sits by a steaming creek in a treeless valley. It's fed by silver pipes that carry steam down from the barren hills that surround it.

Power plants like Krafla are easy to spot – they're peppered with huge, manmade steam geysers. They're essentially channeling free energy from underground.

Dangerous Business

But harnessing this power, by drilling deep holes into volcanoes, turns out to be dangerous business. Krafla's construction in the 1970s was interrupted by dramatic eruptions at a nearby volcano.

And even when that eruption subsided, there were other troubles.

Engineer Bjarni Palsson from the national power company takes us through the rain to the edge of a large crater in the hills above the Krafla power plant.

"Well No. 4 in this area was being drilled at this site here when suddenly an underground steam explosion managed to get its way to the surface," he explains.

People drilling the hole with a giant rig were just able to pull it out of the way and get to safety when the steam exploded and dug a crater that's more than 100 feet deep and about as wide. Palsson peers down into it and shakes his head.

"This is a very good lesson," he says. "Before we start any project or especially if we have new people here, we take them here and tell [them] this is what can happen if you make the slightest mistake."

They named the crater "manmade hell" and moved on. Another well had to be abandoned when the drillers hit red-hot molten rock. It shot up through the hole and onto the surface, obviously ruining the hole, but at least not claiming any lives.

So, success in this business means you need to know how to read the geology deep underground in order to tame the power of volcanoes. Icelanders have learned those lessons the hard way, and they have built up a world-class geothermal energy business in the process.

"Most of the geothermal development for the last 10 years has been in Iceland," says Asgeir Margeirsson, who heads up a new geothermal company called Geysir Green Energy.

"There has been a lot of development here, whereas there has been some sort of stagnation in the other countries, and not too much development, like the U.S., New Zealand or Italy. Until recently," he says.

We meet Margeirsson back at the Viking hotel in Reykjavik. He tells us this city now relies on geothermal energy, along with hydroelectric dams for its electricity. And the city also gets its hot water directly from underground.

Exchanging Oil for Geothermal

"In the '60s, every single home had an oil tank in their back yard and there were oil trucks running around the streets pouring oil into these tanks. And at that time, the heating costs for homes was similar with oil and geothermal," he says.

But Reykjavik took a big gamble. It drilled wells to tap into underground hot water, then built a system of pipes throughout the entire city to circulate this hot water through radiators in homes and offices. The gamble paid off big time.

"Today, it would cost us five times more to heat our homes with oil than it is costing with geothermal," Margeirsson says.

People in this far northern country barely even think about their heating bills — and they leave their windows cracked even when it gets cold.

Margeirsson's company is now in business to export this technology to other parts of the world. It's good for the climate, since it doesn't involve burning fossil fuels. And it's becoming more attractive, even in places that aren't as obviously volcanic as Iceland. California already generates more geothermal electricity than all of Iceland, and the industry in the United States is ripe for expansion. It's potentially a huge market for this upstart Icelandic company, thanks to new measures, such as renewable energy standards set by states, to encourage development of clean, renewable energy.

Margeirsson says the company is already making some big investments in California — and elsewhere.

"We do operate a district heating system in China, for example," he says. "And I like telling the story about that, because what we did is that we drilled a couple of wells, we started to pump up hot water, we diverted it through pipes into homes and we abandoned and tore down two coal-fired heating stations."

That's a tantalizing taste of what geothermal could do around the globe. According to one estimate, it could ultimately provide 10 percent of the United States' electricity. Margeirsson says people just need to take the risk, the way his country did a few decades ago.

Produced by Vikki Valentine.

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