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A breaching minke whale in Iceland. FEE International / Flickr

No whales will be hunted in Iceland for the second year in a row, and one of the country's two whaling companies is ceasing operations permanently.

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Whale watching (here, off Húsavík, Iceland) may be better for the local economy than whale hunting. Davide Cantelli / Wikimedia / CC BY

By Joe Roman

One of the most important global conservation events of the past year was something that didn't happen. For the first time since 2002, Iceland — one of just three countries that still allow commercial whaling — didn't hunt any whales, even though its government had approved whaling permits in early 2019.

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A view from the top of Ok volcano in Iceland, where the Okjokull glacier used to be located. Drepicter / Getty Images Plus

Officials, activists and scientists gathered in Iceland Sunday for the funeral of the nation's first glacier to fall victim to the climate crisis.

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Text from the plaque that will mark the site where Ok glacier once was. Rice University

By Andrea Germanos

A climate change victim in Iceland is set to be memorialized with a monument that underscores the urgent crisis.

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Minke whales dragged aboard the Japanese whaling vessel Nisshin Maru. Customs and Border Protection Service, Commonwealth of Australia

Japan is proposing a slew of rule changes at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting in Florianópolis, Brazil this week that conservationists worry would ultimately lift a 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling.

Japan, which launched a "scientific whaling" program in 1987 as a loophole to the moratorium, has killed more than 15,600 whales in the Antarctic since the ban (including juvenile and pregnant minke whales), according to a report released last month by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI).

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Iceland's multi-millionaire rogue whaler Kristján Loftsson and his company Hvalur hf have resumed their slaughter of endangered fin whales in blunt defiance of the international ban on commercial whaling.

The hunt is Iceland's first in three years and marks the start of a whaling season that could see as many as 239 of these majestic creatures killed.

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U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Even if you try to avoid buying plastics, you might be surprised to find it lurks in many common food and beverage containers, including tin cans, disposable coffee cups and even tea bags.

On Wednesday, however, the environmental group A Plastic Planet debuted the world's first "Plastic Free Trust Mark" to help shoppers know that their products are packaged entirely without the non-biodegradable material, which harms marine life and has entered the larger food chain.

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A fin whale surfacing in Greenland. Aqqa Rosing-Asvid / CC BY 2.0

By Kitty Block

Iceland seems to be the most confused of nations when it comes to whales. On the one hand it attracts international tourists from all over the world to go out and see whales as part of their encounters with Iceland's many natural wonders. On the other hand it kills whales for profit, with some portion of the kill even being fed to some of the same tourists in restaurants and cafes.

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Benjamin Drummond

The UK supermarket Iceland has announced it will remove palm oil from all its own brand products by the end of the year due to the belief there is no such thing as "sustainable" palm oil.

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Earth's abundant inner heat, or geothermal energy, has incredible potential as a renewable energy source. For traditional geothermal projects, hot rocks produce steam for turbines. Over in Iceland, however, a consortium of researchers and companies want to dig much, much deeper into Earth's crust in order to explore the renewable energy potential of molten magma.

Iceland is drilling the world's hottest hole to harness energy from molten magmaFlickr

The Iceland Deep Drilling Project (IDDP) is drilling a 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) hole into old lava flows in the Reykjanes, a region in southwest Iceland filled with geothermal sites. Once drilling is complete by the end of 2016, the Nordic nation will be home to the hottest hole in the world with temperatures between 400 and 1,000 degrees Celsius (or 752-1,832 degrees Fahrenheit), according to New Scientist.

This effort is being led by Icelandic energy companies such as Hitaveita Sudurnesja, Landsvirkjun and Orkuveita Reykjavíkur, as well as the National Energy Authority of Iceland.

Since Aug. 12, the IDDP's rig—actually named "Thor"—has been drilling deep into a landward extension of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, an underwater mountain range that extends above sea level through the center of Iceland.

"People have drilled into hard rock at this depth, but never before into a fluid system like this," Albert Albertsson, assistant director of a geothermal energy company involved in the project, explained to New Scientist.

At this depth, seawater that has penetrated the ocean bed has not only been superheated by magma, it's also highly pressurized (more than 200 times atmospheric air pressure). The team expects to find water in the form of "supercritical steam," aka "dragon water," which is neither liquid nor steam but holds more heat energy than both.

Albertsson said that a well capable of harnessing this steam has an energy capacity of 50 megawatts, about 10 times more than a conventional geothermal well. Theoretically, IDDP's new well could power 50,000 homes compared to the 5,000 homes powered by a single geothermal well.

"If they can get supercritical steam in deep boreholes, that will make an order of magnitude difference to the amount of geothermal energy the wells can produce," Arnar Guðmundsson from Invest in Iceland, a government agency that promotes energy development, told New Scientist.

If this project this sounds a little dicey, as Motherboard explained, this isn't the first time IDDP has tapped into Icelandic lava power:

"In 2009, an IDDP rig located in Krafla, northeast Iceland, accidentally struck a magma reservoir just over a mile underground. Excited about the prospects of new geothermal energy, the project partnered with Iceland's National Power Company, and installed a perforated steel casing at the bottom of the well. This successfully allowed the flow of magma to create superheated, extremely pressurized steam at temperatures exceeding 800°F—at the time, a world record for geothermal heat.

"Power created by the Krafla borehole was never fed back into the grid, and the project was shuttered in 2012 after a critical valve needed repairing."

"In the future, the success of this drilling and research project could lead to a revolution in the energy efficiency of high-temperature geothermal areas worldwide," said Wilfred Elders, a professor emeritus of geology at the University of California, Riverside who was involved in an earlier IDDP project.

According to DeSmogBlog, New Zealand, Indonesia, the Philippines, the U.S. and Mexico already have commercial geothermal plants.

Iceland, known for its numerous bubbling hot springs and geysers, already heats up to 90 percent of its homes and supplies about a third of its electricity with geothermal.

By Karen Stillerman

As a food lover and an agriculture geek, I frequently plan vacations around what there is to eat. This summer, I traveled to Iceland, ostensibly to admire its breathtaking scenery and ride its tough little horses. As a bonus, I escaped a couple weeks of DC's stifling heat. But of course, I also took the opportunity to see (and taste) this unique country's equally unique food and agriculture system up close. Here are my observations.

Weird Food is Just the Beginning

Icelanders are known for eating some very strange things. Nothing is stranger than hákarl or fermented shark, which I did not sample. Not because it sounds thoroughly disgusting—though it really does—but because sharks have been dangerously overfished around the world and I couldn't guarantee the sustainability of this delicacy. Or at least that's what I told myself. Ditto for whale, another traditional food, though one most Icelanders don't eat much today. I had no such convenient excuse for not trying pickled rams' testicles…

I did eat skyr, which is not yogurt (though I'm not entirely sure why not.) And I enjoyed salty Icelandic licorice enrobed in milk chocolate, though this proved to be a flavor combination my colleagues in the office did not appreciate for some reason. (Sorry, folks. At least I didn't bring back hákarl.)

But beyond these novelties lie a cuisine and food production systems that are closely tied to the local land and waters and influenced by past and present sustainability challenges.

Icelanders Grow (and Eat) What They Can

Iceland is a large volcanic island located just south of the Arctic Circle. As such, it's subject to some pretty serious climatic, geographic and geologic challenges. Though winter temperatures in Reykjavik—the world's more northerly capital—are moderated by the Gulf Stream, Icelandic summers are still quite cool. So while its coastal waters and rivers provide a bounty of fish and seafood, the island's volcanic soils are thin and much of its interior is covered by lava fields, mountains and glaciers, which is pretty limiting for agriculture.

Still, about 3.8 percent of the labor force worked in agriculture as of 2006 (the latest stats I found). According to the Farmers Association of Iceland, top crops include cold-lovers you might expect: potatoes, turnips, carrots and cabbage. Rhubarb does well in the climate and you can find it in gardens and escaped into the countryside from abandoned homesteads.

What you wouldn't expect are Icelandic tomatoes. But with a midnight sun shining above and the island's famous geothermal heat radiating from below, Iceland does indeed produce tomatoes (as well as peppers and even bananas!) in greenhouses. I got a chance to see these in Hveragerði, which is home to many hot springs and a horticultural college.

More than crops, though, Iceland's vast land resources are well-suited for grass and grazing animals, most notably sheep. There are some 800,000 sheep in Iceland, an astonishing number considering the human population of the entire country currently stands at just 332,000. The large national sheep herd explains why nearly every restaurant in Reykjavik offers its own variation on homey kjötsúpa or lamb soup. (Every one I tried was delicious.)

But I wondered, are all those sheep sustainable?

A Troubled Environmental History and an Uncertain Future

Iceland was first settled by Nordic explorers (aka Vikings) more than 1,100 years ago and it's thought that about 25 percent of the island was forested. But those forests were decimated for firewood and timber and the grasslands overgrazed by sheep, cattle and horses. About 30 percent of the country has been classified as man-made desert. (This 2007 NPR story features Icelandic soil scientists working to restore the environment and is worth a listen.)

Today, Iceland has a national strategy for sustainability and is carefully cultivating its image as an ecotourism mecca. As part of my horseback trip, I had the unique opportunity to stay a night on an Icelandic sheep farm and to chat a bit with the farmer.

Aðalsteinn Sigurðarson (it's a mouthful, so he goes by Alli, pictured here on the left) operates a 6,600-hectare farm (about 16,308 acres) near the city of Egilsstaðir in eastern Iceland. His great-great-grandfather bought the land in 1922 and his family has farmed there ever since. Alli's parents retired to Egilsstaðir a few years ago and none of his sisters opted to stay on the farm. Though they come and help out on weekends, he's basically managing the place by himself. The farm, called Vaðbrekka, was profiled by Forbes in 2014.

Vaðbrekka is located at 400 meters (about 1,300 feet) above sea level. (See this amazing aerial photo of the place. My group rode our horses down out of the mountains to the left one evening and crossed the river to get there.)

Alli told me proudly that there is only one farm in Iceland that is higher and farther from the coast. His flock ranges from 300 sheep in the wintertime to more than 800 during the summer.

Though I was there in July, the only sheep I saw were two hand-raised orphan lambs loitering outside Alli's back door. The rest of the flock was high up in the hills, grazing on the rich summer grasses. Alli told me his fields produce enough hay to keep the sheep fed when they come back down to the barn for the long winter.

It was hard for me to gauge the sustainability of this operation, though it seemed idyllic.

My colleague and agroecologist Marcia DeLonge studies the sustainability of grazing, mostly in the context of beef cattle here in the U.S. We know that cattle and sheep can damage fragile grasslands if not managed correctly and that they produce heat-trapping methane emissions that pose a problem for our planet. At the same time, as Marcia has written, well-managed grazing can be a better alternative to croplands in many ecosystems and can even add carbon to the soil and provide other environmental benefits.

Like Marcia, scientists in Iceland are studying the best ways to manage grazing in that country. Aided by science and science-based public policies, I hope farmers and ranchers in that country and in my own can find the right balance. Our future depends upon it.