Large wilderness mapping exercise in Iceland 

Summary outcome of wilderness mapping (source: Wildland Research Institute)

Protection for several of Europe’s largest remaining wilderness areas is now within reach, thanks to a new mapping initiative. This has been undertaken by Icelandic cartographers in tandem with the Wildland Research Institute of Leeds University, directed by Steve Carver.

Based on Wild Europe’s definition and zonation criteria, itself linked to IUCN Category Ib, the initiative was launched on 22nd March 2022 in Reykjavik with Gudlaugur Thór Thórdarson, Minister for Environment.

Wilderness still covers over 40% of Iceland’s terrestrial area, and this exercise provides a valuable model for identifying large natural ecosystem areas that are suitable for restoration and protection in Europe generally. 

It is particularly relevant given the consensus among conservationists for non-intervention to play a significant role in the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy as the default interpretation of “strict protection” applying to 10% of EU terrestrial and marine areas. 

Value of the mapping initiative

The mapping initiative represents a significant upgrade over previous endeavours in Iceland, including direct measurement of spatial factors determining wilderness quality.

Its value as a model is significant in other ways too:

1) It shows how appropriate methodology for identification of areas for protection and restoration can best enable implementation of wilderness legislation – in this case the Icelandic Nature Conservation Act in force since 2015, which cites wilderness protection as a key objective:

“protection should aim to safeguard the characteristics of the areas e.g. to maintain diverse and unusual landscapes, and/or conserve complete large ecosystems, and ensure that present and future generations can enjoy therein solitude and nature without disturbance from man-made infrastructures or traffic from motor vehicles”

2) It also exemplifies the key elements that any mapping exercise should include, eg:

  • Based on rigorous but flexible multi-criteria definition of wilderness (from Wild Europe)
  • Incorporating key elements: naturalness of process, vegetation and landscape, remoteness, absence of human artefacts and extractive activity
  • Enabling advanced clarification of the physical and aesthetical impact of different types of land use at the planning stage: for example HEP, geothermal and infrastructure development, with ‘viewshed’ and ‘distance decay measures’ factored in for decision taking
Gudlaugur Thór Thórdarson, Minister for Environment, Climate and Energy speaking at the mapping launch
  • Supported by a comprehensive zonation overlay (core, buffer and transition, also from Wild Europe) to plan, manage and reconcile these and other land uses – including nature tourism – without compromising wilderness values 

3) It thus informs decisions on the cost-benefit of alternative land use patterns, taking into account multiple valuations: ecological, economic, cultural, aesthetic

These methods and approaches that have been used elsewhere by the Wilderness Research Institute, including Scotland, France, Germany, USA, and China. They have been modified and adjusted to suit the landscape, biogeography and general circumstances in Iceland – and already proven useful in support of protection projects there.

Dr Steve Carver presentation at the launch

Toby Aykroyd presentation