COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Iceland, a country treasured for its geological beauty, strong ties to ancient Vikings, and sophisticated cultural cities, suffers from a serious environmental problem that Ohio State University researchers, in collaboration with Icelandic institutions, are striving to address.
Severe soil erosion, caused by centuries of land degradation, has turned the northernmost European nation practically into a desert, making more than one-third of the land uninhabitable and speeding the loss of carbon into the atmosphere -- believed to be one of the causes of global warming.
Rattan Lal, a world-renown Ohio State soil scientist with the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, is looking at ways to incorporate carbon sequestration in land restoration efforts to reverse a process that began when the Vikings settled the island in the ninth century. Carbon sequestration, also known as carbon farming, refers to the storing of atmospheric carbon in plants and soil so that the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will reduce or slow.
"Iceland is a beautiful country, but it has become so desertified due to soil erosion and denudation that the degraded landscape doesn't look much different than sub-Saharan Africa. The airport is a half-hour drive to Reykjavik, the capital, and during that drive I didn't see a single tree or shrub," said Lal. Lal was recently invited by Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, the president of Iceland, to present a series of lectures and workshops on the importance of carbon sequestration for offsetting fossil fuel emissions, improving soil quality and enhancing ecosystem services.
Iceland was once a lush country of grasses and forested land, but the natural resources slowly became depleted as Nordic settlers brought grazing animals and cut down trees for timber and firewood. Today, nearly 40 percent of Iceland is severely eroded, with up to 40 inches of soil missing in some places. Topsoil, the Earth's treasure chest of organic matter and vital nutrients for plant establishment, growth and stability, is generally the top six to eight inches of the soil.
"The trouble is that with this amount of soil gone, combined with a harsh climate, nothing will grow. It is just mile after mile of barren land and rock," said Lal, a professor with the School of Environment and Natural Resources in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.
Lal's visit to Iceland is the beginning of a series of research, Extension and academic collaborations. The collaborations are designed to help restore soil fertility, create political awareness of the seriousness of land degradation in the face of human misuse, using sequestered carbon to aid in offsetting carbon emissions, a major objective of the Kyoto Protocol, and develop exchange programs between Ohio State and the University of Iceland.
Ohio State's Office of International Studies and CFAES' School of Environment and Natural Resources and Office of International Programs in Agriculture are all looking for ways to incorporate study abroad programs into the project.
"We see this kind of collaboration as an opportunity to develop exchange programs for our students," said Dave Hansen, director of the Office of International Programs in Agriculture. Hansen also made the trip to Iceland.
"It's really a unique environment -- basically desert terrain in Arctic climate. Who would have ever imagined that?"
Hansen sees several academic opportunities, such as development of study modules and short courses for students from other nations, study abroad programs to Iceland for Ohio State students, and visiting Icelandic professors teaching courses at Ohio State.
"One interesting project that our students would enjoy is that Icelanders are setting up a preserve to re-establish the land as it looked before the Vikings settled," said Hansen. "Their hope is to use the preserve as a model for what the rest of the island might look like again."
Lal said that on the surface, the issues facing Iceland may not appear as important to citizens of the United States or of other parts of the world, but pointed out that globalization is bringing such environmental impacts closer to home.
"We are linked globally. What is being done in Iceland impacts us and what we do here impacts Iceland," said Lal, director of OARDC's Carbon Management and Sequestration Center. "Climate change, whether you believe it is happening or not, is a global issue."
Additionally, through such collaboration, the opportunity exists to illustrate how a "green" economy can be developed on a national level. "Iceland's vision and goal is to be carbon-neutral in the next 25 years," said Lal. "Now the challenge is to figure out how we do that through research, Extension, and student exchange programs."
Grimsson, Iceland's president, is being invited to visit Ohio State University to continue fostering collaborations between Iceland and Ohio State. Additionally, representatives of Ohio State, Icelandic universities, the Icelandic Office of the President, and the Icelandic Soil Conservation Services -- the oldest operating soil protection agency in the world -- are organizing a global forum to be held next year in Iceland. The purpose of the forum is to continue driving home the need to reverse land degradation, to emphasize how soil erosion impacts climate change, and to foster global awareness of the benefits of carbon sequestration. The conference will be jointly organized by the Soil Conservation Services of Iceland and Ohio State University.
The event is scheduled from Aug. 30-Sept. 3, 2007, in Reykjavik, Iceland. It will emphasize the strong linkage between land restoration and United Nations conventions on climate change, biodiversity and desertification; illustrate links between soil quality and food security in developing countries; and document the benefits of carbon sequestration.