Magazine article Geographical

Fire & Ice: In June Last Year, the Icelandic Government Created Vatnajokull National Park, the Largest National Park in Europe, Protecting around 12 per Cent of Iceland's Total Area, Including Europe's Largest Glacier. However, the Reaction from the Country's Environmentalists Has Been Considerably Less Enthusiastic Than Might Have Been Expected

Magazine article Geographical

Fire & Ice: In June Last Year, the Icelandic Government Created Vatnajokull National Park, the Largest National Park in Europe, Protecting around 12 per Cent of Iceland's Total Area, Including Europe's Largest Glacier. However, the Reaction from the Country's Environmentalists Has Been Considerably Less Enthusiastic Than Might Have Been Expected

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

'The ice that we're standing on fell as rain more than 1,000 years ago when the first settlers arrived on the island,' biologist Haukur Haraldsson tells a small group of tourists as he leads them up onto the very lowest folds of Iceland's Vatnajokull glacier.

He has bought them up here to introduce them to the extraordinary world of an Icelandic glacier--pointing out the young fulmar birds stranded on the ice because their mothers have fed them so well they're now too fat to fly; the bits of moss known as glacial mice that live off the nutrients in the glacier and scurry across the ice like rodents when the wind blows; and the musical plinkity-plonk a piece of ice makes when it drops into one of the deep ice chasms.

The glacier, which creeps forward at around 50 metres a year--swallowing up rocks and dropped cameras, and sometimes even people, on its journey down the hillside--is the largest glacier outside of the Arctic and is now the centre of Vatnajokull National Park, Europe's largest.

Visually, it dominates the 13,610-square-kilometre park, which is located in the country's east, appearing at the top of almost every view as it oozes down from the grey mountains, before watering the lush green meadows where Iceland's sheep and tufty ponies feed, and then leaving a trail of huge black moraines as the mineral-rich waters flood out into the icy sea.

The glacier sits almost incongruously on top of a hot young landscape fizzing with geysers and volcanic activity. Unusually, the land that makes up Iceland consists of oceanic--rather than continental-crust forced up from the bottom of the ocean by volcanic activity millions of years ago. And today's Iceland is still a geological hotspot, spewing

out more than one third of the world's lava in the past 500 years.

'We hope that Vatnajokull National Park will become a showcase for this unique interaction between fire and ice', says Olof Yrr Atladottir, director general of the Icelandic Tourist Board. She's also optimistic about the park's potential economic benefits/Tourism is one of the pillars of rural development and because this park covers 12 per cent of Iceland, it touches a lot of communities.'

MIXED RESPONSE

On the surface, setting up a park to protect an important glacier would seem to be a pretty uncontroversial move. But VatnajOkull National Park is the result of a liaison between environmentalists, the Icelandic government and the world's largest aluminium producer, US mining giant Alcoa, and its birth hasn't met with universal celebration.

Alcoa was lured to Iceland because aluminium smelting is an extremely energy-hungry business and, thanks to its glacier and volcanic activity, Iceland has the ability to generate large amounts of hydro and geothermal energy. In order to power Alcoa's aluminium smelter, the Icelandic government harnessed two glacial rivers in the east of the country with a dam and reservoir (the largest engineering project the country has ever seen), all at the taxpayer's expense.

Iceland's population--which numbers just over 300,000 people--was divided. 'The subject is still an open wound for the people of Iceland,' says Hjalti por Vignisson, mayor of the village of Hofn, which is just to the south of the glacier, and within the new national park. Some were outraged that a precious part of their countryside was being drowned and an industry known for its environmental and human rights abuses was being welcomed into a country with such an eco-friendly image. But others welcomed the company's arrival because it brought new jobs into areas where the traditional fishing and farming industries were disappearing.

Partly in response to the complaints, the Icelandic government agreed to create Vatnajokull National Park and, in a move that was seen as green-washing by many, Alcoa agreed to donate 20 million Icelandic krona towards the opening and running of the park. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.