Iceland – land without trees?

We visited Iceland in the summer of 2013 (see my other blog for particulars). One of the things that really stood out for me was the vastness of the volcanic landscape. Put another way, the distinct lack of trees. Iceland, was once (well 2.5 million years ago), covered in coniferous forests. Over the years, and glaciations, the number of tree species gradually reduced to the point where, at the time of human settlement in circa 900AD, there was really only birch forests and willow scrub left. At this point, 25-40% of the land mass was covered forested, however it didn’t take long for the forest to disappear due in part to sheep grazing, clearing of the woods for pasture, firewood, charcoal and construction poles. By 1950 the birch woods covered less than 1% of land area. But the lack of trees isn’t because of the cooler climate. Canada is colder, and we have heaps of trees.

Afforestation is progressing, but at 1.5% of land area, forests still aren’t that widespread. Tree species have diversified. In addition to mountain birch, there is also Russian larch, Sitka spruce, lodgepole pine, and western balsam poplar. But, maybe not enough to sustain a large lumber industry.



  • Largest forest in Iceland: Hallormsstaðaskógur, 1854 hectares, 70% native birches, 30% imported species.
  • Forests cover 49,000 hectares.
  • About 200 tons are harvested annually.
  • There are no mosquitoes in Iceland (or snakes for that matter).
  • Iceland’s first apple tree was planted in 1909.

How expensive is lumber? Here’s a quick comparison with a piece of standard building lumber in North America: the ubiquitous 2″×4″ (normally spruce in Canada, but sometimes fir). Looking at the catalog of the Icelandic version of Home Depot, Bauhaus, the closest equivalent is the 45mm×95mm, and the price per metre is 390 Krona. This is equivalent to about C$3.74. So an eight foot length is about 2.44m. A 2″×4″×8′ at Home Depot in Toronto is C$2.60. The equivalent piece of lumber in Iceland would cost C$9.30. Yikes… and that’s just for a crappy piece of building lumber. I don’t imagine there are too many places selling exotic lumber either.

Any Icelandic woodworkers out there?



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