Human Ecology

, Volume 42, Issue 4, pp 577–590 | Cite as

Decline of Birch Woodland Cover in Þjórsárdalur Iceland from 1587 to 1938

  • Friðþór S. SigurmundssonEmail author
  • Guðrún Gísladóttir
  • Hreinn Óskarsson


Immense land-cover changes in Iceland over the last millennium have encompassed birch (Betula pubescencs) woodland depletion and extensive soil erosion; few studies have focused on spatial distribution change of birch woodland in Iceland over centuries. The main objectives of this study were to (1) map the changes of birch woodland cover in Þjórsárdalur (14,000 ha) in southern Iceland, over a period of 350 years from late sixteenth to early twentieth century, and (2) explain the impact of socio-economic and natural forces on the woodland cover over three periods: 1587–1708, 1708–1880 and 1880–1938. We used a combined approach of historical reconstruction from diverse written archives, GIS-techniques and field work. About half of the Þjórsárdalur valley was covered by birch woodland in the late sixteenth century but over a period of 350 years 94 % of woodland had been depleted. The woodland was intensively used for firewood and charcoal making during the period with limited land management restriction. The main driving force for this development was socio-economic, where the form of ownership was a fundamental factor for the fate of the woodland. Harsh climate and volcanism further exacerbated the woodland during times when it had become fragmented and beyond its state of recovery.


Deforestation Soil erosion Land ownership GIS Historical maps 



We would like to thank the support from the Hekluskógar project and the University of Iceland for the teaching assistant grant. We are grateful to Dr. Egill Erlendsson and the three anonymous reviewers for insightful and thorough comments on the early drafts of this article.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Friðþór S. Sigurmundsson
    • 1
    Email author
  • Guðrún Gísladóttir
    • 1
    • 2
  • Hreinn Óskarsson
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Geography and Tourism, Institute of Life- and Environmental SciencesUniversity of IcelandReykjavíkIceland
  2. 2.Institute of Earth SciencesUniversity of IcelandReykjavíkIceland
  3. 3.The Hekluskógar projectHellaIceland

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