Feb 26 2005
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Environmental Impact of the Kárahnjúkar Dams



The Kárahnjúkar Power Plant is the largest industrial development in Iceland’s history. Roughly 3% of the total area of Iceland, approx. 290,000 ha, will be impacted by the project, not including areas of secondary impacts, such as windblown dust, long-term erosion, downstream or coastal silt and soil deposits, alterations in groundwater characteristics in peripheral areas with resulting changes in vegetation and wildlife habitats.

The 1,000 sq.km direct impact area includes the catchment areas of two of three major glacial river systems flowing north from Vatnajokull, the largest glacier in Europe. The glacier, and the river catchments north of it, comprise one of the largest remaining wilderness areas of Europe.

There will be significant, lasting effects on wildlife populations in the area, including pink-footed geese, reindeer, harbour seals, and rare invertebrate species. Erosion and changes in the area’s hydrology will also have significant, negative and irreversible effects on the functioning of the ecosystem.

The areas can seem barren and rough, but between the ravines and canyons, large tracts of rare, lush highland vegetation are found, and the land area provides important habitats for many unique birds, mammals, and invertebrates.

The wild, unregulated watercourses also contain a wide array of freshwater fish, including char, trout and salmon, as well as birds and invertebrates.

The coastal waters fed by these rivers are highly productive. Important harbour seal rookeries can be found in these waters.

In ruling that the project should not go forward, the Icelandic Planning Agency first determine that the EIA was inadequate in many respects. Nonetheless, the Agency concluded the following:

. . . [O]n the grounds of the data that has been submitted on the proposed development and the associated development and impact area, it is clear that the project is likely to result in substantial negative consequences for the environment. . . .

Thus, it has been found in the Planning Agency’s examination that the work in the first stage of the project is likely to have a permanent negative impact because of the soil erosion and wind-borne soil over an extensive area to the east of Jökulsá á Dal, which is of substantial importance in terms of its soil and vegetation. This impact would affect many things, eg. the vegetation of the Vesturöræfi area, the reindeer, bird life and the landscape, in addition to which erosion would result in a dust haze in the Vesturöræfi area and down into the inhabited areas.

It has also been found that the development would result in great hydrological changes, which would have an effect, for example, on the groundwater level in low-lying areas adjacent to Jökulsá í Fljótsdal and Lagarfljót, which in turn would have an impact on vegetation, birdlife and agriculture. The Hálslón reservoir would destroy a vegetated area with a high conservation value, one of the reasons for which is its position on one of the largest continuous vegetated areas above 500m a.s.l in the central highlands of Iceland.

Development work on the first stage of the project would interfere with species that are rare, both in the local area and in Iceland as a whole, and would alter the conditions for life in lakes and rivers. The work could also have a substantial impact on birdlife, both through the loss of land covered by the reservoir and through the indirect effects of soil erosion and changes in hydrology.

It has been revealed that work on Hálslón is likely to have a permanent impact on reindeer and that effects on seals in the Héraðsflói bay would be substantial. The impact due to changes in the flow of fresh water are likely to be felt in the more southerly fjords on the east coast of Iceland.

Also, it has been established that the project would have a substantial impact on geological formations and landscape that are protected and have a conservation value in a local, national and even international context. It has been established that over one hundred archaeological sites could be disturbed by the work in the first stage of the project. There is considerable uncertainty as to the impact of the project on human habitation and commercial life in the east of Iceland.

Impacts on Biodiversity

Soil and vegetation

– There will be substantial loss of unique and ecologically important highland vegetation. The lush highland vegetation found in large parts of the impacted area, represent unique remains of the original highland vegetation of Iceland. Much of this habitat type has been lost in Iceland over the centuries due to overgrazing and other unsustainable land use practices. The highland vegetation in this area contains assemblages of flora, including flowering plants, grasses, and sedges and is also important grazing land for Iceland’s reindeer, and provides staging, breeding and feeding grounds for a number of bird species.

About 4,000 ha of this unique habitat type will be lost directly, as they are covered by the planned reservoirs themselves. This represents a significant proportion of Iceland’s remaining areas of lush highland vegetation. Substantial additional loss of highland vegetation is expected due to secondary effects, such as erosion, drying out or flooding due to changed drainage and groundwater conditions, or impacts from windblown dust and soil.

– Erosion, and dust and sand storms are expected. The water level of the main reservoir, Hálslón, will fluctuate by as much as 75m as the volume of water changes. During dryer phases, in late winter and spring, a 24km-long mud zone will form along the slopes of the reservoir. As these extensive mud zones dry, they become ‘erosion traps’ of clay, silt and sand that the constant winds pick up and deposit on the surrounding landscape. Such dust and sand can cause severe damage to vegetation and animal habitats at some distance from the source.

– The hydrological characteristics of a substantial portion of Iceland will be irreversibly altered if the project is implemented. By diverting rivers, and creating fluctuating reservoirs, the project will affect groundwater conditions in the entire impact zone. This, combined with changes in local climate caused by reservoirs and river diversions, is expected to have direct impacts on the surrounding vegetation. The valley slopes of the areas that will be affected by the main reservoir have been identified as being particularly rich in both flora and fauna.

– The cumulative and long-term impacts of the project on the area’s vegetation and soils are currently unknown. They are, however, expected to be large, as the entire ecosystem is defined by the current watershed dynamics.


– Iceland’s harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) will be impacted. The population of harbour seals in Iceland has decreased sharply in the last 20 years, from roughly 40,000 individuals in 1980 to well under 20,000 in the late 1990s. An important rookery for this species lies at the mouth of the Jökulsá a Dal river. Roughly three percent of the total population gather, breed and rear their young. The current plans would see this river plugged and diverted. The lost influx of freshwater to the seal rookery waters is expected to irreversibly damage this site, adding additional pressures on survival for this species.

– The Icelandic reindeer population will be severely impacted. East Iceland, is their only habitat, probably because of the area’s large expanse of undisturbed and unfragmented lush, highland grazing land. The population of 1,500 highland reindeer in this area are now a naturalized wild population, with conservation, recreational and hunting value. The planned reservoir is centred in their main breeding and spring grazing areas. The main calving areas are near the reservoir and will be heavily impacted by infrastructure, human activity, and dust blown from the reservoir basin during draining. Based on knowledge of wild reindeer on Iceland and in Norway, it is expected that the project, with its direct environmental impacts as well as long-term degradation and disturbance from increased human activity in the area, will lead to local extinction. Parts of the Kringilsarrani nature reserve, protected for reindeer conservation, will be flooded as part of the project.

– Freshwater fish will be heavily impacted. The glacial rivers in the project area are home to arctic char, trout, stickleback, and further down the river, Atlantic salmon. River diversion will devastate their ecosystem. Dams, turbines, pipes, diversions, and increased mud and silt all contribute to these impacts. The freshwater fish of this area have large conservation, as well as recreational and resource value.

– The pink-footed goose (Anser branchyrynchus) will lose important nesting sites if the project goes ahead. During summer, Iceland is home to the world’s largest concentration of pink-footed geese.

The Kárahnjúkar project would affect two IBA’s (BirdLife – Important Bird Areas). Among the bird species whose existence is threatened or would be affected by the changes which the project would bring are:

• Red-throated Diver (Gavia stellata) – 220 pairs
• Pink-footed Goose (Anser brachyrhynchus) – 3800 pairs affected 570 nests would be flooded by the Hálslón reservoir and 2200 pairs would be in immediate danger. 9-13.000 moulting geese in the Eyjabakkar IBA will be directly affected by the project.
• Greylag Goose (Anser anser) – 2000 breeding pairs, 10.000 moulting birds affected
• Pintail (Anas acuta) – 100 pairs; 20% of the total Icelandic population
• Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus) – 27 pairs
• Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) – 1000-2000 pairs
• Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus) – over 700 pairs
• Great Skua (Stercorarius skua) – 265 pairs, 5% of the total population
• Arctic Skua (Stercorarius parasiticus) – some 1300 breeding pairs (possibly the world’s largest breeding colony in Úthérað IBA)

A site is considered to be ‘internationally important’ under the RAMSAR Convention on wetlands and their resources if it contains more than one per cent of a given population. Destruction of nesting sites in the project area would thus be a breach of RAMSAR guidelines.

Landscape and Wilderness Issues

The proposed project will fragment and disrupt one of the last remaining, unfragmented wilderness areas in Europe. Such large wilderness areas, which comprise complex intact natural ecosystems, are becoming increasingly scarce. It is a major responsibility of host countries to manage them in such a way that they retain their value for science, recreation, sustainable use, and the conservation of species and assemblages requiring large areas, for the foreseeable future.

The landscape of the area impacted by the project is a dramatic system of glacial rivers, ravines, highland plateaus, lakes, moraines, and canyons. One of Iceland’s largest and most spectacular canyons, the Dimmugljufur, will be partially flooded by the project, while in other parts of the canyon the flow of water will dry to a trickle for much of the year.

The conservation, scientific, and recreational values of this wilderness area are large. Looking towards the future, these values clearly have great growth potential, as wilderness, scenic landscapes, and the resources they can provide sustainable and non-invasively become increasingly in demand.

Climate Change Implications

Iceland is exempted from some of the commitments made by other industrialized nations under the Kyoto Climate Treaty. Iceland set these exemptions as a condition for its ratification of the treaty. The exemptions allow Iceland to increase its emissions of CO2 by 1600 thousand tonnes annually during the first commitment period, 2008-2012.

A core function of the Kyoto Climate Treaty is to ensure that environmental and social costs related to emissions of greenhouse gases are internalized by the producers of such gases. By taking advantage of the exemptions granted to Iceland, large emitters of CO2, such as the aluminium industry, can avoid taking on this responsibility, and can thus save substantial costs

Though Iceland and Alcoa have found ways of avoiding to pay for their pollution, their emissions will be very real, and they will be weakening the Kyoto Protocol and contributing significantly to global climate change.

Ironically, this project is not even “clean” in the sense of the Kyoto Treaty. It has been stated that the dam increases the greenhouse effect, “because of reduced adoption of carbon dioxide in the ocean. Now, it seems to be generally accepted that transformation of the secondary minerals plagioclase to gadolinite and then into chalk in the ocean, is binding an enormous amount of greenhouse gasses at the shores of Iceland. What becomes of this process when most of the mineral-mud in the river Jökla stops in the Hálslón-dam instead of running into the ocean?

This must be a burning question, not the least for Icelandic politicians who now seek exemption from the Kyoto Treaty, on grounds of the “cleanness” of the hydropower.”


One Response to “Environmental Impact of the Kárahnjúkar Dams”

  1. ellen says:

    So Iceland’s harbour seal population has fallen by more than half; stop the dam now or it will “seal” the fate of these beautiful marine mammals!

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