A view of Landmannalaugar in Fjallabak Nature Reserve, Iceland. Vitaliy Mateha/Shutterstock How do you find your way out of a forest in Iceland? Stand up. That’s an old Icelandic joke about the country’s meager woodlands, and like most jokes, it contains a kernel of truth. Iceland is a famously beautiful place, yet forests only cover about 2 percent of its land area, and they tend to be relatively small. This hasn’t always been the case, however. When the first Vikings arrived in Iceland more than a millennium ago, they found an uninhabited landscape with plentiful birch forests and other woodlands — spanning anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of the island. According to one early saga, "At that time, Iceland was covered with woods, between the mountains and the shore." Why Did the Forests Disappear? So what happened? The Vikings began chopping down and burning Iceland’s forests for timber, and to clear space for farmland and grazing pastures. "They removed the pillar out of the ecosystem," Gudmundur Halldorsson, research coordinator for the Soil Conservation Service of Iceland, recently told The New York Times . They also brought sheep, whose appetites for saplings made it difficult for Iceland’s forests to […]

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