Sandstorm raging over a black-sand plain near Landeyjahöfn, Iceland. Photo: Erik van den Elsen.

Hella, Iceland, June 17th, 2017
- In the battle to save the planet’s soil from desertification, the black volcanic sands below Iceland’s largest active volcano seems an unlikely place to start. The RECARE project, funded by the European Union, is involved in finding and sharing solutions to soil threats across Europe and recently the project scientists visited the RECARE case study site in Iceland to learn more about the efforts to halt the soil threat of desertification. 

Johann Thorsson of the Soil Conservation Service of Iceland (SCSI) and his team are experimenting with ways in which to halt the desertification of Iceland and to restore the fertility and health they have not had for several centuries. Anne Bau (SCSI) points to the area around Hella, and remembers when it was a desert of shifting black sand. In her lab at the ISCS she demonstrated the patient combination of seed science and adapted farming technologies that have seen the area replanted with native grass species, and the spread of the dunes stopped. There is not a ready supply of the lime grass seeds on which the restoration process relies so these need to be bred, the seed cleaned and tested before being used to stabilise the land. 

Shelter belts of trees line some of the fields, helping the grass establish by protecting it from the ever present drying wind and starting the process of stopping the sands shifting.  Out on the test plot, spared from the sheep grazing that inhibits the regeneration of grass in other areas, the grass is establishing well, and some trees are spontaneously reappearing.   Often it is said that it takes centuries for soils to be restored but the lands around Hella demonstrate what that the combination of science and stamina can achieve; in time spans that are meaningful to people. 

Image above: seeding grass on the sand plains is one of the measures to keep the plains covered.

This example from one of the 17 case study sites of the RECARE project shows how research is done to combat desertification as one of the many threats that is facing the soils in Europe and the rest of the world. The United Nations Committee to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) has called out June 17th 2017 as the World Day to Combat Desertification (WDCD2017) as a means to draw attention to this major threat that mankind is facing. The RECARE project investigates desertification during its 5 year existence and hopes to develop measures to counter this soil threat, thereby contributing to the important work of the UNCCD.

You can download the complete story of the Icelandic fight against desertification, written by Matthew Reed by clicking HERE.

Article by Matthew Reed (UoG) and Erik van den Elsen (WENR).