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The Environment of Iceland

Travelers may be surprised to find Iceland’s environment so temperate for its location in such a northern region. The climate supplies Iceland with two primary vegetation zones: the tundra, a zone of treeless plains; and the taiga, a zone of coniferous forests. Prior to human settlement, woodlands and birch forests are estimated to have covered 25-40% of the land area, but by the early 1900s these forests had nearly been exhausted. Today, the number of trees has once again increased due to reforestation initiatives, but unfortunately much of the native forest ecosystem has been lost. One-fourth of the land is continuously covered by vegetation, which consists of forestland, bogs, moors, and grasslands.

Iceland’s natural resources are limited in variety, but each resource in itself is considerable: fish, hydropower, geothermal power, and diatomite. Iceland’s primary industries include fish processing, aluminum smelting, ferrosilicon production, geothermal power, and a growing travel and tourism sector. Fishing provides 70% of the countries export earnings, and employs four percent of the workers. Over-fishing has long been an issue, though the strict catch quotas imposed in the late 1980s and early 1990s have helped somewhat to stabilize the fish population. Despite its small size, Iceland also faces increasing issues with air pollution. Water pollution from fertilizer runoff is also a concern, as is inadequate wastewater treatment, but awareness is key and Iceland is taking proactive steps to improve these environmental distresses.

Less than five percent of the country’s workers are involved in agriculture, due to the small amount of arable land and short growing season. Icelanders make up for this deficit, however, by using geothermal energy to heat a large number of greenhouses. Agricultural products include potatoes and green vegetables. On an Iceland tour you are likely to also notice a variety of cattle farms. Many Icelandic farmers raise sheep and dairy cattle, making the country nearly self-sufficient in dairy products.

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