Monday, November 18, 2013

Visiting Iceland: A Botanist's Quick Look

Fields of Iceland
Fields of west central Iceland
In July of 2012 I visited Iceland for a week. I expected green hills and Viking-era history. I found a whole lot more.

Iceland is an island of 40,000 square miles (the size of the state of Kentucky) in the North Atlantic just barely south of the Arctic Circle. There were no humans until 860 AD when a ship from the Faroes stumbled on it. A few years later a ship captained by Raven Floki came to explore. He found it cold and dangerous and named it Iceland. Settlers arrived in 870. They spread across the land, trying to raise crops on an island with shallow soils and a short growing season. Eventually they gave up growing grains and simply raised livestock on the green fields.

trees in Reykjavik, Iceland
trees in Reykjavik, Iceland
Notice the absence of trees in the landscapes below? When the settlers arrived, there were trees, mostly dwarf willows, but before long they were all cut them down for building materials or fuel. After that, wood was imported or gathered from driftwood. Modern Iceland has been planting trees to provide for its own wood needs without imports. There are nice trees in the cities and around farmsteads, and forestry plantations elsewhere.

Clouds moving in. Western Iceland.
Clouds moving in, western Iceland.
As far north as they are, the summer days are very long and the winter days very short. We were there a week after the summer solstice so it never really got dark at night. It was hard to sleep since it was still daylight. I saw familiar plants such as plantain and lawn daisy that seemed to have particularly big leaves and wondered if that wasn't a result of very long summer days with adequate water.

The weather was exceedingly changeable, with the clouds closing in to rain or opening to let the sun shine within a few minutes of each other. Just because the sun was up didn't mean it was bright and sunny. Conversely we learned that, even if it was cloudless, never to go anywhere without umbrellas.
Wildflowers, west central Iceland
Wildflowers, west central Iceland

Clovers and dandelion leaves, Iceland
Clover flowers and dandelion leaves, Iceland.

As elsewhere in high summer, wildflowers were abundant. Many of the wildflowers were familiar because the same ones are found from northern Eurasia to North America. (Have a "circumboreal distribution"). I find don't have great flower pictures because I was taking so many of the landscape. See more flowers here.

And of course many a European weed has hopped to Iceland and as well as occupied large sections of North America.


Flowers, Iceland
More flowers

More summer flowers below the sign.

weedy lupine, Iceland
weedy lupin, Iceland
There are also fields of attractive weeds. This lupin (Lupinus nootkatensis) came from Alaska, probably by way of Europe. It is certainly pretty but it is altogether too abundant. To Icelanders it is an undesirable weed. It crowds out native plants. Furthermore, like many lupins, it has toxic alkaloids. Consuming it stunts sheep growth and in high quantities can cause paralysis. It is likewise poisonous to humans. 

Shallow soil on old volcanic debris, Iceland
Shallow soil on volcanic debris, Iceland
Iceland has many active volcanoes. On the average one erupts every five years. So there are almost always areas where the soil is thin to nonexistent on fields of new lava or volcanic ash. 

One of those volcanoes is Mount Heckla, whose awe-inspiring eruption in the Middle Ages so impressed the priests that it was taken literally as the "Gates of Hell." Heckla last erupted in 2000.

Volcanic activity also means there are steam vents and geysers, including Geysir, the geyser that gave us the English world geyser.

My pictures don't take you up into the mountains or onto the glaciers. Much of Iceland isn't very good for homesteading but is great for hiking.  

rift due to Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Iceland
Rift due to Mid Atlantic Ridge, Iceland
To the modern fan of geology, Iceland is very neat. Not only are there volcanoes and glaciers but the island lies on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The Atlantic is expanding, so the two sides of Iceland are gradually being pulled apart. There are deep faults and in some places you don't need much background to appreciate them. 

Life on Iceland has always been punctuated with earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and unpredictable North Atlantic weather. The people farmed in scattered homesteads and came together to solve shared problems each summer in what became Europe's earliest Parliament. They camped at a centrally located site and held an all-Iceland market while the leaders wrestled with island government. The picture below is area where they held the Parliament, the Althing. These days, except for special occasions, the Icelandic parliament meets in comfortable rooms in Reykjavik. (Remember that I said it was likely to rain on you for a few minutes any summer day?)
Althing site, Thingvellir National Park, Iceland
Althing site, Thingvellir National Park, Iceland 

There's lots more neat stuff of course--about how the settlers struggled, about their horses, sheep and dogs, the Icelandic Sagas telling their history, the adventures of living on a volcanic island close to the Arctic Circle, of modern Icelandic customs, arts and trendiness. I'll just close with a picture of a field of oilseed rape (Brassica napus) in bloom. I don't want to leave the impression that there is no agriculture. Of course there is, and, with lots of geothermal energy, greenhouses are cheaper to heat than in most places. Anyway, flowering fields are oilseed rape are always gorgeous.

Field of oilseed rape, Brassica napus, in flower, Iceland
Field of oilseed rape, Brassica napus, in flower, Iceland

Comments and corrections welcome.
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Kathy Keeler 

References consulted
Iceland. Is. The official gateway to Iceland.
Magnusson, B. 2010. NOBANIS – Invasive Alien Species Fact Sheet
Lupinus nootkatensis

Related posts: Westmann Islands

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