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Iceland boreal birch forests and alpine tundra

Iceland, the second largest island in the North-Atlantic Ocean (c. 103,000 square kilometers), is entirely volcanic and composed of basaltic rock. Weather is usually cold and wet, and blanket bogs are common. The surface is only partly covered with vegetation, the rest being bare rock, snow, and glaciers, which cover over eleven percent to the ecoregion. Wetlands and coastal cliffs serve as spaces for colonizing birds. Sixty-one Important Bird Areas (IBAs) supporting almost three hundred bird species located on the island.

  • Scientific Code
  • Ecoregion Category
  • Size
    35,300 square miles
  • Status
    Relatively Stable/Intact
  • Habitats

Location and General Description
This island is located far north in the Atlantic Ocean with its northern edge situated just south of the Arctic Circle. Iceland has a relatively mild coastal climate due to the effect of the Gulf . The average summer temperature in Reykjavik, the capital, is 10. The average temperature is 6°C in July, with average highs of 24. The average winter temperature in Reykjavik is about 0°C in January (average highs are 9. 9°C). For two to three months in summer there is continuous daylight in Iceland, and early spring and late autumn enjoy long twilight. However, the days are very short in mid-winter. Precipitation ranges anywhere from 400 to 1,000 mm. The relatively mild climate is due to the influence of the Gulf Stream. Iceland has a very vigorous climate, which has a negative effect on the habitat; with little or no vegetation, high winds and precipitation lead to rapid erosion of soil and coastline.

Iceland is an entirely volcanic island on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and is being pulled apart at the rate of one centimeter per year. Consisting of basaltic rock, many of the volacoes are still active, including the well-known volcanoes Hekla, Katla and Krafla. Soils are andosols and podzols, without permafrost but with turbulent movement of saturated soil on slopes. Most of the vegetation and agricultural areas are in the lowlands close to the coastline. The interior of the country is largely arctic desert, with mountains, glaciers, volcanoes and waterfalls. Much of the interior of the country consists of glaciers, which cover almost 12,000km² or 11.5 percent of the country. Iceland has the largest glacier in all of Europe, Vatnajökull. However, a warming climate has led to retreating glaciers. In some cases, some of the smaller ones have melted completely. Some of the most active volcanic areas lie underneath these glaciers so that when eruption takes place, it leads to huge meltwater floods and explosive activity. These floods have long been a feature of Iceland´s geologic history.

The almost total lack of woodland is a striking feature in Iceland, as is the bareness of the country, whereby vast areas are either devoid of vegetation or only have a very sparse vegetation cover. New lava flows and ash from the volcanoes have sometimes covered vast areas of land, damaging or destroying the vegetation cover in the process. Plant colonization of these areas is slowed by thin soils and slow vegetative succession. Vegetation consists of the following: Betula nana, Betula pubescens, Salix phylicifolia, Cetraria nivalis, Xanthoria elegans, X. candelaria, Alectoria ochroleuca, Rumex acetosa, Carex chordorrhiza, Carex rostrata, Ranunculus trichophyllus, Angelica archangelica, Ranunculus acris, Geranium silvaticum, Potamogeton filiformis, Erigeron borealis, Achillea millefolium.

Biodiversity Feature
This ecoregion is rich in bird diversity, over three hundred species have been observed. Sixty-one Important Bird Areas cover seven percent of this country. Although not technically an artcic area, many typical arctic species are found here. This habitat serves as an important refueling stop for many migratory birds from Arctic breeding grounds to warmer wintering sites. Eighty-eight species have, up to recently, been nesting regularly in the country. Of these, fourty-two species are of European conservation concern. These include the Short -eared owl (Asio flammeus), Snowy owl (Nyctea scandiaca), Redshank (Tringa totanus), Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea), Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo), Glaucous gull (Larus hyperboreus), Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis), and Snow bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis). Thjorsarver, an Important Bird Area contains one of the largest breeding colony in the world for the Pink-footed goose (Anser brachyrhynchus) (Wheatley 2000).

Mammals make up a much smaller number of the island’s biodiversity. Long-tailed field mice (Apodemus sylvaticus) are abundant here, and are the only rodents. The Arctic fox (Alopex lagopus) and the American mink (Mustela vison), an introduced species, are other mammals found on this island ecoregion. Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) were imported to Iceland in the 18th century and are now found all over the country.

Current Status
Erosion is responsible for thousands of kilometers of destroyed vegetation. Although the population density of this country is only 3 persons per km², most of whom live along the coast, agriculture development has also altered much of the original vegetation and landscape of this ecoregion. Drainage of wetlands for agriculture has not only changed the natural habitat, but also affected populations of birds that lived there. There are sixty-one Important Bird Areas in Iceland including Arnarvatnsheidi-Tvidaegra, Gudlaugstungur-Alfgeirsungur, and Thjorsarver (Heath & Evans 2000).

Types and Severity of Threats
Drainage of wetlands for agriculture is a major threat to bird populations of this ecoregion. Fisheries exploitation of the waters around Iceland negatively affects the populations of birds by reducing their major food source. Introduced species such as is the American mink are also a threat to colonies of birds, which make up their diet. Future oil and gas exploration threatens this ecoregion. Currently there are plans for building a hydropower station near Vatnajoekull, the largest glacier in Iceland. This station would negatively affect more than 3,000 square kilometres of relatively intact habitat and its flora and fauna through the building of dams, reservoirs, and the diverting of natural streams and rivers.

Justification of Ecoregion Delineation
This ecoregion is equivalent to the DMEER (2000) unit of the same name. It consists of the entire island of Iceland not covered by permanent ice. All of the Bohn et al. (2000) western boreal and nemoral-montane birch forests, southern arctic and shrub tundras, mountain tundras and sparse mountain vegetation, and minerotrophic mires on Iceland are included.

Bohn, Udo, Gisela Gollub, and Christoph Hettwer. 2000. Reduced general map of the natural vegetation of Europe. 1:10 million. Bonn-Bad Godesberg 2000.

Davis, S.D., V.H. Heywood, and A.C. Hamilton. 1994. Centres of plant diversity. Vol. 1: Europe, Africa, Southwest Asia and Middle East. WWF and IUCN, Washington DC.

Digital Map of European Ecological Regions (DMEER), Version 2000/05


Heath, M.F., and M.I. Evans, editors. 2000. Important bird areas in Europe: Priority sites for conservation. 2 vols. BirdLife International, Cambridge, UK.

IUCN 2000: The Global Redlist of Species, of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. URL: <>

Ozenda, P. 1994. Végétation du Continent Européen., Delachaux et Niestlé, Lausanne, Switzerland.

Stanners, D., and P. Bourdeau, editors. 1995. Europe's environment: The Dobris assessment. European Environment Agency, Copenhagen.

Wheatley, N. 2000. Where to watch birds in Europe and Russia. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.

Prepared by: Michael McCauley and Ole Osterman
Reviewed by: In process


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