In the middle of the Icelandic Highlands, one can feel like one on the Moon: no vegetation, no life, no colours and no landmarks. The entire area is essentially a natural gravel field.
Aspiring astronauts, in fact, can come here for some testing and training. A walk to the nearest tree would have taken days. They would have had to cross the Hólasandur, the black sand desert, and head for the northeast coast. But now everything is changing.
Lupines cover 0.4% of Iceland’s land
In the foreground of those photographs, however, there is often a peculiar purple alien: the Alaskan lupine. This plant appeared on the landscape shortly after the astronauts and was adopted as an efficient cover for eroded soil. But the experiment blew up in Iceland’s face and left a permanent purple mark.
Greening Iceland has become a balancing act: we want to preserve the renowned splendour of our natural volcanic deserts, but we also need to revegetate what we have lost. Lovers and haters have valid points.
Lupines cover 0.4 per cent of Iceland’s land area, according to estimates from aerial imagery. That sounds sparse, but considering the country’s forest cover is only 400 square kilometres, that’s a lot of lupins.
And while planted forest cover is projected to reach about 1.6 per cent by 2085 at current afforestation rates, purple flowers could stretch into double digits, aided by climate change and human activity.
“Exponential growth is the nature of invasive species,” says botanist Pawel Wasowicz, a lupine expert at the Icelandic Institute of Natural History. The growth curve, he estimates, will see a dramatic peak in the next two decades.
According to the Natural History Institute, few countries are as vulnerable to global warming as Iceland, as invasive species have enormous potential to wipe out existing flora and spread into the highland interior, which is currently too cold and dry for survival. most plants. This moon-like natural landscape could, in other words, disappear.
In about 30 years, at the current rate of climate change, lupine could colonize much of the highlands, suggests a research paper published in the journal Flora in 2013. Naturalist and former MP Hjörleifur Guttormsson, 82, one of early opponents of the plant, says, “Everything but glaciers is potential lupine land.”
Most punished land
The term ‘moonscape’ is a phrase often used to describe Iceland’s boundless deserts, formed by volcanic eruptions and covered in different shades of lava. Iceland’s volcanic regions are excellent training grounds “because of their desiccation, low nutrient availability, and extreme temperatures, in addition to the advantages of geological youth and isolation from sources of anthropogenic pollution,” according to a NASA document from 2018.
Therefore, its very sterility is an advantage. But lately, crawling through these deserts is an alien dressed in purple: the Alaskan lupine. This plant arrived on the scene shortly after the astronauts and was initially adopted as an effective cover for eroded soil. But the experiment blew up in Iceland’s face and left a permanent purple mark.
Now, it is considered an invasive plant, since it threatens not only the existing flora but also the arid volcanic interior.
The rolling black sands of Hólasandur, where astronauts once travelled, are today a purple field. As the climate changes, lupine spreads to places previously protected from the plant by low temperatures and low rainfall. Some Icelanders welcome the flower from Alaska; some denounce their invasion. It’s a highly contentious issue, as Iceland’s colour struggle has stimulated a new form of identity politics.
If you plough under the lupins (or peas), the nitrogen is released into the soil, providing food for the plants. It’s a pretty, elegant solution to nourishing depleted soil. Alaskan lupine arrived in Iceland in 1945 in a suitcase. But the story of their deliberate introduction began about a thousand years before their arrival.
First settlers landed
When the first settlers landed from Viking ships in the 9th century, two-thirds of the island was covered in vegetation and only had one land mammal, the arctic fox. The first humans on the island settled down with a cargo of cattle and began to follow the same agrarian lifestyle they were used to, cutting down trees and burning the wood, totally oblivious to the damage they were doing. Icelandic soil forms more slowly and erodes much more rapidly than continental Europe.
By the time the government formed the Icelandic Forest Service in 1908, early settlers would hardly have recognized the desolate coastline. By then, Iceland was the most ecologically damaged country in Europe. Wind erosion, grain by grain, carried the country to the sea. The destruction continued unabated.
In the mid-20th century, when other European nations were rebuilding after World War II, the Icelandic Forest Service was looking at human-induced destruction of a different kind. The Icelanders had so intensively exploited their home island by cutting down the native birch forests and overgrazing the land that only 25 per cent of the country’s original green cover remained.
The agency looked abroad for solutions. Their director, Hákon Bjarnason, was sent on a three-month mission to Alaska. His task was to collect plants and trees that he liked and those that he thought could thrive in Iceland. November 3, 1945, marks the birth of our lupine saga.
What Are Lupine Flowers?
Lupins are flowering plant that grows in North America, North Africa, the Mediterranean, New Zealand, and Iceland. They are part of the Fabaceae family of flowers, which has over 199 different species and is the same plant family as the pea.
Lupines can grow up to 120cm tall and are known for their dramatic colours and fast-spreading nature, often leading them to create blankets of colour when they bloom. The type of lupine that grows in Iceland is the Alaskan lupine (Lupinus Nootkatensis). Every Lupine plant in the country is here because of one person.
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