Jun 02 2003

Iceland’s Wilderness Under Attack

Einar Þorleifsson and Jóhann Óli Hilmarsson
World Birdwatch vol. 25 no. 2, June 2003


falcon and reindr 

As reported in the previous issue of World Birdwatch (25(1):7), a huge dam is being built in a remote part of Iceland to supply hydroelectric power for an aluminium smelter. The development is vigorously opposed by Fuglaverndunarfélag Íslands (Icelandic Society for the Protection of Birds, ISPB, Birdlife in Iceland). ISPB’s Einar Ó. Thorleifsson and Jóhann Óli Hilmarsson discuss the likely impacts on the unique wildlife and scenery of this pristine environment.

Iceland is renowned for its variety of landscapes and habitats. The interior consists of a high mountain plateau with mountains and volcanoes and large tracts of arctic desert. Some of the highest mountain ranges host glaciers, including Vatnajökull the largest glacier in Europe. The glacial rivers Jökulsá á Dal (150 km long) and Jökulsá á Fljótsdal (140 km) run from the north-east margin of Vatnajökull. At the head waters of these two rivers are Kárahnjúkar and Eyjabakkar with extensive heathlands and lush tundra marshes at 600 m above sea level. These oases are the largest of their kind in the central highlands and home to many different kinds of wildlife. A plan for a National Park has been laid out and suggested by many nature conservation organisations, and this area has the potential to become the largest wilderness area in Europe. At Kárahnjúkar there is a massive canyon called Dimmugljúfur (Dark Canyon) 7 km long and up to 200 m deep. The cone shaped Snæfell volcano (1833 m a.s.l.) rises above the plateau with its glacier covered peak.

Large herds of Reindeer roam the uplands and thousands of Pink-footed Geese breed along the rivers and graze the vegetation in summer. This is also a favourite haunt of the Gyrfalcon and they are often observed looking for their main quarry, the Ptarmigan. This majestic predator, the Gyrfalcon, has its eyries on scores of cliffs in these highlands and canyons. The song of Purple Sandpipers and Snow Buntings can be heard all over in spring and scattered pairs of Whooper Swans call from distant pools.

Bleak future for an unique wilderness

The Icelandic government has approved a plan set forth by the National Power Company to harness the power in the glacial rivers Jökulsá á Fljótsdal and Jökulsá á Dal. This power plant will produce electricity for an aluminium smelter to be built by the American company Alcoa in one of Iceland’s most beautiful fjords in East Iceland. The aluminium factory will be of the old kind with high chimneys releasing 12 kilos of sulphur per one ton of aluminium.

Work on the power plant has already started. Icelandic Society for the Protection of Birds and other Icelandic nature conservation organizations have fought against this venture for many years. Furthermore, numerous international organisations have joined in and lodged protests, including BirdLife International and the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Adverse effects on the environment

The main argument against this scheme is the enormous impact it will have on the environment within the water catchment areas (3,000 km²) of these two glacial rivers. The environmental impact will be detrimental both for the vegetation and also will cause a decline in some bird and animal populations. The influence on the landscape is enormous, for example over 60 large waterfalls will be lost. The 67 km² of reservoirs will be conspicuous, as will the huge dams. The largest dam, in the canyon at Kárahnjúkar, will be 190 m high and 770 m long, forming Hálslón reservoir (57 km²); three medium-sized dams are collectively 32 m high and 1000 m long. Additional smaller dams will be also built.

There are two International Bird Areas (IBA) along the rivers, Úthérað (IBA code 040) and Eyjabakkar (061). The Kárahnjúkar area is also an IBA candidate. Eyjabakkar, which comprises flood marshes along the glacial river, is renowned for its flocks of moulting Pink-footed Geese (9,000-13,000 birds). A reservoir will be made at the border of the Eyjabakkar area and it will destroy a beautiful lake and extensive marshland. The construction will result in extensive disturbance to the geese that are very vulnerable during the moulting season. The Nature reserve Kringilsárrani will be partly submerged.

Úthérað, a 200 km² area of sandy fluvial heathlands, flood marshes and sand dunes, is the name of the delta of the two Jökulsá rivers. In Úthérað there is a large variety of breeding birds, the most obvious are Arctic Skua and Whimbrel. Ptarmigan and meadow birds like Snipe and Meadow Pipit are also very common. In the gravel areas of the rivers and sand dunes there are colonies of Great Skuas and Great Black-backed Gulls. The wetlands and pools are teeming with ducks such as Wigeon, Teal and Pintail. Red-throated Divers occupy every pool. Waders inhabit the grasslands and flood marshes, the most numerous being Red-necked Phalarope, Dunlin, Redshank and Icelandic Black-tailed Godwit. Uncommon or rare birds in this area include Grey Phalarope, Shoveler, Common Scoter and Shelduck. Along the banks of the lower lying part of the rivers, thousands of Greylag Geese breed. In spring hundreds of Long-tailed Duck, Scaup, Tufted Duck and Harlequin Duck stop over.

A renewable energy source?

The energy source is not renewable and the power station is only estimated to be able to produce electricity for 50-80 years. Many geologists, engineers and naturalists have voiced their worries concerning the great risk associated with building the three Kárahnjúkar dams. The dams are a total of 3 km long, the highest one standing 190 m. The reservoir will reach 27 km south and will cover 4 km of the glacier. The glacier Brúarjökull is a surge glacier coming from the icecap of Vatnajökull. In the past there have been frequent surges in this glacier, for example it moved 10 km in 1890 and again 8.5 km in 1963. The next surge is expected to come within the next 30 years. What will happen when the reservoir fills with icebergs, is a question, which has not been answered by the engineers of the Icelandic National Power Company (Landsvirkjun).

There is another problem, which is considerable and could be of great importance. All glacier rivers are heavy with sediments, and the two rivers are muddy brown in summer and carry huge amounts of sediment, both glacial mud and sand. The Jökulsá á Dal river is exceptional in the way that it carries on average 13 times more sediment than any other Icelandic river, 10 million metric tons per year and during glacial surges the amount is many times more. When the river has been dammed this sediment will mostly settle in the reservoir causing the short time lifetime of the power station as the sediment settles to block the water intake tunnel to the power station, rendering it unprofitable. Reduced sediment load in the two glacial rivers will also lead to increased coastal erosion at the coast of Úthérað.

Heavy erosion is likely near the reservoir at Kárahnjúkar and wind born dust can affect large inhabited areas. The reservoir will be filled with water in autumn but in spring 2/3 of the lake bottom are dry and the prevailing warm mountain wind will blow from the south-west, taking the light dry glacial sediment mud in the air and causing considerable problems for the vegetation in the highlands and for the people in the farmlands located in the valleys. To add to the problem the 120 km of mostly dry riverbed of Jökulsá á Dal will only have water in the autumn, leaving the mud to be blown by the wind in spring.

Large-scale threats to Pink-footed Geese

The Pink-footed Goose is the species which is most threatened by the hydroelectric plans of the Icelandic government. A recent estimate of the Icelandic-Greenlandic population is of 230,000 birds, with 40,000 to 50,000 breeding pairs of which 35,000 pairs breed in Iceland. At Kárahnjúkar power plant area, 3800 pairs of Pink-footed Geese breed. Approximately 20% of the breeding birds breeds in the highland oasis Þjórsárver IBA and Ramsar-site or 6,800 pairs. Þjórsárver has been under constant threat for decades, six hydroelectric power plants have been built in the area and every drop of water is needed to give maximum power. Several large reservoirs have been created on the east side of Þjórsárver, using 40% of the water otherwise going to the oasis. A major debate has taken place in recent years because the National Power Company wants to build a reservoir into the IBA area. The end of this fight is not in sight. The authorities and the Power company Landsvirkjun have their eyes on many other sites in the Highlands, which are invaluable for the Pink-footed Goose.

The future

There is a significant amount of opposition to the project and people and societies are still trying to stop the construction of the power station. Almost every day there are letters in the Icelandic newspapers from individuals opposed to the project.

It has also been suggested to “find” use some additional energy sources for the aluminium smelter, i.e. geothermal or other hydro projects which are less damaging to the environment. The possibility of a national park and its benefits to the environment and Iceland’s economy with a rapidly growing tourist industry has not been seen as opposition to the Icelandic authorities.

International conventions that apply are the Bern convention, Ramsar, and Rio. Iceland is not a member of the EU and therefore the European bird directive does not apply, as do the African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement, Bonn and Aarhus conventions. The case has also been reported to the EFTA court. The Kárahnjúkar case is also going to be heard by Bern convention committee.

There are Icelandic laws on environmental assessments and the power station was declined by the Icelandic planning agency on the grounds that it would cause too much environmental disturbance. There have been on going court cases because of the ruling of the minister of environment. In the case of the building of the dams and the power station there is no real action plan to try to lessen the environmental damage such as soil erosion and changes to water levels and flooding.

Birds and mammals that will be affected by the hydroelectric project

o The affected area is one of the few regions in Iceland where the soil and vegetation are still more or less intact. Opponents to the project point out that it would have unforeseeable consequences for the water table.
o This part of Iceland is home to 1,500-2,000 reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) whose summer pastures would be flooded. The total population of reindeer in Iceland is around 4,000 animals.
o Some 400-600 female harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) breed every year on the Jökulsá á Dal delta. By redirecting the river the colony (10% of the Icelandic population) would be destroyed.
o The Kárahnjúkar project would affect two IBA’s (BirdLife – Important Bird Areas). Among the bird species whose existence is threatened or could be affected by the changes, which the project would bring, are:
o Red-throated Diver (Gavia stellata) – 220 pairs
o Pink-footed Goose (Anser brachyrhynchus) – 3,800 pairs could be affected, 570 nests would be flooded by the Hálslón reservoir and 2,200 pairs would in immediate danger. App. 9,000-13,000 moulting geese in the Eyjabakkar IBA will be directly affected by the project.
o Greylag Goose (Anser anser) – 2,000 breeding pairs, 10,000 moulting birds affected
o Pintail (Anas acuta) – 100 pairs; 20% of the total Icelandic population
o Shoveler (Anas clypeata) – 5 pairs, one of the rarest Icelandic breeding ducks
o Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus) – 27 pairs
o Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) – 1,000-2,000 pairs
o Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus) – over 700 pairs
o Great Skua (Stercorarius skua) – 265 pairs, 5% of the Icelandic population and almost 2% of the world population.
o Arctic Skua (Stercorarius parasiticus) – some 1,300 breeding pairs, 4% of the European population and 0.5% of the world population (possibly the world’s largest breeding colony in Úthérað IBA).