Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society

Worldview: Watch Your Step!

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“Moss Conservation in Vatnajökull National Park, Iceland”

By Katrin Kleemann

All photographs were taken by Katrin Kleemann and used here with her express permission.
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View of the southwest half of the Laki fissure from Mount Laki.

Lakagígar is a fissure volcano in Iceland’s remote highlands that erupted in 1783–84 and left behind a landscape full of lava fields, now covered in lush green moss. Tourists can travel to the Laki fissure only with a four-wheel drive because the terrain is very rough and you have to cross several rivers to reach it. Most of the year, routes to the area are impassable due to the harsh climatic conditions, so visitors can only gain access during the summer months (mid-June to mid-September).

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A trail in the Eldborgafarvegur lava channel.

The Vatnajökull National Park, where Lakagígar is located and which is home to Europe’s largest glacier (outside the Arctic) of the same name, has an increasing problem with tourists veering off the marked footpaths. The highland’s landscape and nature are very sensitive. Every summer about 8,000 people visit the Laki crater and, every year, an increasing number of tourists comes to Iceland. When you hike through Tjarnargígur Crater—one of the Laki fissure’s many craters—and the adjoining Eldborgarfarvegur lava channel, signs point you to the spots where other tourists have set a bad example by walking off the path and onto the moss, which is visible because the moss turns brown. The fringe mosses that grow here are very delicate and it can take hundreds of years for them to grow back.

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A marked trail in the Eldborgafarvegur lava channel; to the left of the post you can see moss that has turned brown because people have walked on it.

Four strategies are employed at the Vatnajökull National Park to facilitate the conservation of the moss: First, there are signs to make tourists aware of the problem and its consequences; second, tracks are marked with posts, which indicate where tourists are supposed to walk; third, in some areas, specially designated platforms have been built to walk on; fourth, volunteer programs help repair the damage by transplanting the moss—a method that is particularly time-consuming. Cooperation between the Environment Agency of Iceland (Umhverfisstofnun) and volunteer groups started more than 35 years ago with a team of just 15 people from the BTCV (the British Trust for Conservation, now called TCV—the Conservation Volunteers). Today, the volunteers spend the equivalent of 500 weeks every year carrying out conservation work around the country .

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Information about moss conservation on the trail. Here you can also see the wooden platform that has been built as a footpath.

So, should you find yourself in the Icelandic highlands, don’t stray off the beaten track. Watch your step—keep the breathtaking landscape the way it is.

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