Updated August 2008 – The Thjórsárver wetlands of central Iceland are a unique ecosystem. Bounded by the Hofsjökull glacier to the north and by volcanic deserts to the east, south and west, these lush wetlands are characterized by tundra meadows intersected with numerous glacial and spring-fed streams, a large number of pools, ponds, lakes and marshes, and rare permafrost mounds. Covering some 120km2, they are an important oasis in an area with very little or no plant cover.


The area is a hotspot for biodiversity. BirdLife International have recognized the Thjórsárver wetlands as an Important Bird Area, primarily because of its importance for the Pink-footed Goose (Anser brachyrynchus). With 6–10,000 breeding pairs, the Thjórsárver wetlands support one of the largest breeding colonies of these birds in the world, and provide a moulting site after their summer migration. The wetlands are also an important breeding area for other tundra birds, including the Purple Sandpiper (Calidris maritima) and Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus). Indeed, the wetlands probably have more breeding birds than any other area in the central highlands. In addition, the wetlands have more vascular plant and moss flora than any other area in the otherwise barren central highlands. The lichen flora of the permafrost mounds (palsas) is also diverse and includes some rare species.

The wetlands are also a hotspot for controversy. The issue is whether the building of reservoirs and other infrastructure for hydroelectric power development within the wetlands should go ahead.

The Thjórsá River is vital not only to the Thjórsárver wetlands, but also to Iceland’s hydroelectric industry. Proposals to flood the Thjórsárver wetlands as part of further hydroelectric developments go back more than 30 years. In the 1960s, Landsvirkjun, Iceland’s national power company, announced plans to construct a 200km2 reservoir that would have inundated almost all of the wetlands, including the breeding grounds of the Pink-footed Goose. In response to public opposition, the project was abandoned in 1981 and the Icelandic government established the Thjórsárver Nature Reserve in part of the wetlands.

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This protection is not absolute however. A provision was included that still allows Landsvirkjun to build a dam in the area, provided that the project is found acceptable by the government’s Nature Conservation Agency and provided that scientific research shows that the dam will not harm the wetlands.

Accordingly, Landsvirkjun proposed a 30m-high dam with a smaller reservoir covering some 65km2. Facing mounting criticism from both scientists and the local population, Landsvirkjun lowered its ambitions again, and is now proposing a 24m-high dam with a 32.5km2 reservoir.

Conservation groups such as Birdlife International and the Iceland Nature Conservation Association have shown concern for the loss of habitat for the Pink-footed Goose that the flooding will cause. In addition, there are fears that the reservoir will cause desertification as a consequence of erosion from riverbanks and changes in ground-water level. The latter could also affect the fine balance between permafrost and tundra vegetation in this area. In addition, although Landsvirkjun is trying to sell the project as renewable energy, scientists estimate that approximately one third of the water volume in the reservoir will be lost in little more than half a century due to sedimentation.

The public too are not happy with the proposal to flood the Thjórsárver wetlands. Public awareness and support for conservation has increased in the years since the wetlands were protected, and the local population adopted a unanimous resolution against hydroelectric development in the wetlands.

The irony is that the Icelandic government itself also recognizes the importance of the wetlands. In 1990, the government added a 37,500ha area to the List of Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar List). This listing obliges the government to maintain the ecological character of the Thjórsárver wetlands — seemingly at odds with the plans of its own power company to flood the area.

Reykjavík City council (who then owned 45% of Landsvirkjun) finally ruled in January 2006 that they oppose any further destruction of the Thjórsárver wetlands. This has forced Landsvirkjun to “put aside” their plans for the Ramsar listed site.

Originally, the energy from Thjórsárver would have been used for the expansion of the Rio Tinto Alcan smelter at Straumsvik, Hafnafjordur. However, in 2007 a local referendum there ruled against the expansion.

These are great victories for environmentalists that show that our struggle is starting to have results. But the licence of Landsvirkjun to tamper with Thjórsárver remains to be revoked by parliament. The cancelation of the Nordlingaöldu project (Thjórsárver) also puts other areas in greater danger.



One Response to “Thjórsárver”

  1. michael johnston says:

    Keep up the good work of preserving the country and her natural resources.
    There are other less evasive ways to harness energy that will not impact the nature.
    Keep Iceland beautiful and clean.

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