Country Profiles

Iceland - Country Profile

Status and Trends of Biodiversity


Iceland is situated in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, isolated from landmasses, making it difficult for plants and animals to disperse to the island. Biological diversity is thus not very high, and there are few endemic species of fauna and flora. Besides commensal rodents, the terrestrial mammalian fauna of Iceland is composed of just four species, only one of which, the arctic fox (Alopex lagopus), is indigenous to the country. The others were brought to Iceland, either inadvertently or on purpose. On the other hand, about 72 bird species nest regularly in Iceland. The country's northerly latitude and harsh climate prevent traditional crop cultivation, limiting agriculture mainly to animal husbandry. Soil erosion is one of the most serious environmental problems facing the country. It is estimated that over half the vegetation cover of the country has been lost since it was first settled 1,100 years ago. This has had a severe effect on vegetation and biological diversity in extensive areas in certain parts of the country. Furthermore, Iceland has lost over 95% of its original birch woodlands, which today cover only about 1% of the total area. The underlying reason for this extensive loss of soil and vegetation is mainly the early clearing of woodlands and subsequent overgrazing, mainly by sheep, throughout the centuries.

The island is mountainous, surrounded by coastal lowlands, fjords and valleys shaped by marine abrasion and glacier erosion. Almost two-thirds of the country's surface, some 60,000 km2, has sparse or even very sparse vegetation. Glaciers cover about 11,000 km2 (11%), and rivers and lakes cover 6,000 km2 (about 6% of the land mass). The complexity and variety of ocean currents in Icelandic waters, along with the mixing of water masses, creates nutrient-rich and highly productive fishing grounds capable of supporting high diversity of living resources in great quantities. The diversity of marine fish species is well documented, as is the diversity of plankton, both zooplankton and phytoplankton, but the diversity of marine benthic organisms is less well known.

Number and Extent of Protected Areas

In 2000, the 85 national parks and reserves and other protected areas amounted to roughly 11,900 km2, or approximately 12% of the total land area in Iceland. It is estimated that 6% of protected areas classify as wetlands, and that approximately 4.5% of the wetlands in Iceland have been protected.