VATNAJÖKULL NATIONAL PARK: A NEW UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE
Former president of Iceland, Mr. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, excellencies, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. It‘s an honour to be here with you today.
I want to tell you about a place that is dear to me. A place of incredible contrasts, a truly magical site. It is Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Europe, and the magnificent area around it – one of Iceland’s most dynamic and rugged regions. This is Vatnajökull National Park – the largest protected area in Iceland, established in 2008.
As seen on this map the national park covers a large area of Iceland – in fact over 14% of the entire country.
Before becoming the Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources in Iceland I worked as a ranger in this area for several summers and was touched by the vastness, the silence, the striking beauty, the incredible lava formations, the pristine oases and not least the feeling of being tiny in comparison with this all-encompassing nature.
Iceland is one of the most active volcanic areas of the world. The tectonic rift zone crossing through Vatnajökull National Park is a remarkable example of geological processes, driven by the geomorphic and physiographic forces that shape and continuously reconstruct the Earth’s crust. The resulting diversity of landforms: volcanoes, lava fields, mountains, ridges, tindar, riverbeds, canyons and sands, is unique among volcanic areas in the world.
The presence of the Vatnajökull glacier on top of these interactions makes this environment and the associated landscapes truly one of a kind. The property contains eight subglacial volcanoes. Two of them are among the most active in Iceland.
Much to the joy of Icelanders, Vatnajökull National Park was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List this summer. This means the park has been recognized as having an outstanding universal value – a value for all of us here in this room, for all of mankind.
For us, this was a watershed. The inscription is a major recognition for Iceland of the geological origin and processes developing and shaping the country. It is important for our national identity, for our tourism, for local governments and communities around the area.
It is highly unusual that such a large part of a country is inscribed on the World Heritage List and we now have the responsibility to maintain and protect the integrity of the area, not only for Icelanders, but for the world.
But, this is not all. Vatnajökull National Park covers approximately one third of the Central highland in Iceland. We Icelanders however have ambitions to conserve an even larger part of the Central highland.
As a matter of fact, we want to conserve the whole Central highland of Iceland as a national park, and we want to include Vatnajökull National Park in the new park.
Why are we eager to do this? Well, the Central highland is a unique place in many perspectives.
It all began shortly after the settlement of Iceland when natives started travelling the country. The area served as the shortest travel route between regions, and by travelling over the highland and its glaciers, travelers could more easily pass the glacier rivers that spread out at the lowlands and were easier to pass closer to its source near the glaciers of the highland.
The Icelandic Sagas also tell stories of famous protagonists, or Vikings as you might call them, crossing the Central highland for battle or hiding from foes. Later, after the Christianization of Iceland, bishops would use the same routes for clerical visitations. Over time these highland routes would be marked by cairns, and to this day the main highland roads that tourists, both Icelandic and foreign travel, follow the same route as the settlers of Iceland did.
In the 17th and 18th centuries travels over the highland seem to have reduced significantly. Perhaps, both cause and effect of that reduction was the animistic faith, in sticks and stones, in hidden people, trolls in the mountains, creatures in lakes, and complex variety of ghosts roaming the highland.
The feeling that the Central highland was terra incognita started to sink among Icelanders.
Later in the 18th century when Icelandic and foreign natural scientists started taking expeditions to the highland the natural wonders of the area were gradually revealed: Its multiple volcanoes, glaciers, voluminous rivers and waterfalls, colorful hot springs, vast lava fields and broad expanses of black volcano sand, all contrasted with oases of vibrant but vulnerable vegetation.
Now, the Central highland forms one of the largest territories in Europe which has never been inhabited or cultivated. This makes the central highland one of the last remaining great wilderness areas in Europe.
With rising environmental awareness, rapid decrease in wilderness areas in the world and increased scientific knowledge, outdoor recreation and ecotourism, the importance of the area as a natural treasure has increased even further.
In addition, many areas of the central highland have suffered land degradation and despite efforts of farmers in the lowlands to reclaim soils and vegetations, there is still a long way to go to restore many of these ecosystems.
So, to sum up: All these values: historical, cultural, mystical, scientific, recreational, economical and of course natural are the reason for our desire to protect the whole Central highland as a national park.
As you hear the values that support the argument for a national park are not new. The idea of a Central highland national park is also not new. Environmental NGOs and scientists involved in research in the area have now and then suggested the idea. But, in 2015 a large group of both environmental and outdoor recreational NGOs joined forces with the support of the umbrella organization for tourism in Iceland and issued a statement of intent encouraging Icelandic authorities to establish a Central highland national park.
This big movement caught the attention of the then sitting government that appointed a committee to write a report about the prerequisites of establishing a Central highland national park. The government that came to power after that wrote in its mission statement that it would be important to increase protection in the Central highland.
And now for the first time, an Icelandic government, the one that is currently in power, has it written in its coalition agreement that a Central highland national park will be established.
Of that I am very proud!
Within few weeks, a political committee, which I appointed in March 2018 will submit a report to me with its suggestions of how a Central highland national park shall look like and operate. The committee has representatives from all political parties in parliament and representatives from The Icelandic Association of Local Authorities. It worked in close cooperation with all stakeholders and the public on its suggestions.
I am looking forward to receiving the report and believe wholeheartedly that we will manage to establish a Central highland national park that we can all be proud of, and we will work on this exciting project in close co-operation with municipalities and interested parties.
A Central highland national park will in my opinion be Iceland´s largest contribution to nature conservation to this day.
I would like to use this opportunity to inform you that this exciting subject will be explored further in a session organised by the Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources at 11:30 today. The name of the session is „World Heritage and Large-Scale Protected Areas in the Arctic“ and the session takes place in Háaloft, which is on the 8th Floor here in Harpa. Only very determined people will be able to attend the session because Háaloft is difficult to find – So, I hope to see you there.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Glaciers cover over 10% of Iceland and the Central highland national park certainly will have number of them. But our glaciers are retreating due to the climate crisis.
In August, the world media attention suddenly turned to Ok, a well-known icy mountain in Iceland that has lost its status as glacier. Scientists counted over 300 glaciers in Iceland in 2000. Seventeen years later, 56 of them were gone. This is not a dull statistic; it is a countdown to disaster.
In Iceland we have a project called Melting glaciers, implemented by the Icelandic Meteorological Office, the Vatnajökull National Park and the University of Iceland´s Research Centre in Hornafjörður. The goal of the project, which is a part of the government’s climate change agenda, is to increase awareness about climate change and the associated consequences for glaciers in Iceland and elsewhere. The retreating glaciers in the national park are powerful examples of what is happening right in front of our eyes.
In a world of changing nature our national parks play an important role, particularly when it comes to education. Let us take good care of them, and let us put nature first.