In Iceland, nature is what brings many international visitors to the country. Majestic glaciers, dramatic volcanic landscapes, hidden waterfalls, and remote beaches all play a key role in the nation’s tourism industry, and rightly so. It’s vital that nature protection measures remain at the forefront of government policy and planning to ensure that such natural beauty is preserved and protected for future generations of Icelanders and visitors.
Importance of nature in Iceland
The country’s unique geography presents both opportunities and challenges. In Iceland, natural resources play a vital role in its economy. Geothermal energy, for instance, is used to supply heat to nine out of every ten homes across the country. It also generates something in the region of a quarter of its electricity. Once dependent on peat and cripplingly expensive imported coal, by 2014 about 85% of primary energy use was from renewable energy sources, two-thirds of which came from geothermal energy.
Some of the country’s best known and most visited tourist attractions are also intrinsically linked to geothermal energy. Geysers like Strokkur wouldn’t erupt without geothermal processes superheating water beneath the ground. Spas such as the Blue Lagoon are made possible using the geothermal seawater that pooled beside the Svartsengi Geothermal Resource Park. Even without counting Iceland’s naturally occurring hot springs and the likes of the Blue Lagoon, there are still almost 140 swimming pools across the country using geothermally heated water.
Iceland natural resources and natural hazards – Striking a balance
When your economy and your leisure time are as closely tied to natural resources like this, it’s no surprise that nature conservation is of supreme importance. But these same opportunities bring with them challenges. The country’s many active volcanoes are carefully monitored to ensure Iceland’s natural hazards don’t threaten lives.
Measures to protect Icelandic nature and fight climate change
Much of Iceland’s countryside is protected by law, though the precise form that safeguarding takes varies. Natural sites, national parks, nature reserves, protected areas with sustainable resource utilization and country parks are just some of the many classifications used. Woodlands, wetlands, lakes, waterfalls and hot springs are just some of the natural landforms for which preservation and management are strictly controlled.
There are three national parks in Iceland. Vatnajökull is the largest, covering a vast area that amounts to 11% of Iceland’s land area. Within its boundaries lie ten volcanoes – eight of them hidden beneath the ice – and numerous ice caves and waterfalls. It finally gained a much-deserved place on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2019. Tourists come to enjoy snowmobile and super jeep tours, to hike its walking trails and explore its subterranean wonders. Snæfellsjökull National Park is increasingly popular for its combination of breathtaking interior and coastal landscapes. Ancient lava caves, moss-covered lava fields, waterfalls and wave-battered sea stacks await those who venture to this lovely part of Iceland. Thingvellir National Park completes the trio, the site of the original parliament and a place where the boundary of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates cleaves a tear in the ground. Though many visitors come as part of a Golden Circle Tour, others experience the crystal clear water of the Silfra fissure as they dive or snorkel here.
Iceland Government policy
Iceland’s a country where measures to protect nature and natural resources are at the forefront of government policy. The Environment Agency takes care of the conservation and management of Snæfellsjökull National Park. Meanwhile, the vast Vatnajökull National Park and historic Thingvellir National Park are looked after independently. Climate change poses a very real threat to Iceland nature. Raising public awareness is key – the ceremony to mourn the passing of Ok glacier in August 2019 served to remind people all over the world that we must act before more glaciers are lost. The commemorative plaque bore the inscription:
“A letter to the future. Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years, all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”
Soil conservation can also be a casualty of climate change and is of vital importance too. The degradation of land has a negative impact on biodiversity and can lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions. The Soil Conservation Service of Iceland looks after a number of programs designed to mitigate those effects and works alongside other organizations on projects such as Farmers Heal the Land and the Land Improvement Fund.
Enjoying nature and saving the planet
Conservation doesn’t mean these natural resources and protected areas are off-limits. Far from it – their use is encouraged and valued. Visiting Iceland’s three national parks is crucial to instilling respect and sensitivity for the environment. As such, these areas play an essential role in the education of Iceland’s young people, the future custodians of this corner of our planet, as well as visitors who can see first-hand how important it is to play their part in ensuring climate change, doesn’t catastrophically alter such beautiful parts of our world. Future generations have a right to enjoy nature just as we have. As the current guardians of our planet, we must all do our bit to shape policy and live our lives in a way that doesn’t destroy what we have inherited.