Geothermal areas

Protection of geothermal areas

The magnificent and distinctive geothermal areas are one of the main characteristics of Icelandic nature and are almost unparalleled in the world. Their diversity is high, both in relation to geology and mineralogy as well as biology, but in many of these areas endemic species of thermophilic (heat-loving) microbes can be found, having adapted to very extreme habitats.

Geothermal areas are under high pressure due to development

The exact number of geothermal areas is unknown in Iceland, but has been estimated to be 27. Of those, one is in the seabed and six are found underneath glaciers. Almost half (nine) of areas visible on the surface have been disturbed by drilling. 

A Master Plan for hydro and geothermal energy resources in Iceland, passed as a parliamentary motion in January 2013, groups potential areas for hydro and geothermal energy development into three categories; protection, waiting and utilization categories. More than 70% of all potential geothermal high temperature fields were grouped into the utilization and waiting categories, 43% and 29% respectively. Therefore, geothermal areas are under a lot of pressure due to development.

Landvernd's effort to protect geothermal areas

First of all, Landvernd has put special emphasis on the protection of high temperature geothermal areas. The association has challenged the myth about the sustainability of energy production from these areas, relating to the low energy efficiency (10-15%), adverse human health impacts from hydrogen sulphite emissions and pollution from power plant waste water. In the review papers on the masterplan that Landvernd sent in, the association suggested that most of the high temperature geothermal areas categorized for utilization be assigned a waiting status until more is known about the environmental and human health impacts of harnessing the resource for energy production.

Second of all, Landvernd runs an educational program to promote sustainable tourism in geothermal areas, but these areas are very vulnerable to intrusion and traffic.



The number of tourists in Iceland has nearly doubled since 2000. Annual growth has averaged about 6% during this period, but was more than 15% in the last two years. A continuing increase is predicted and, therefore, there is a high probability of increased intrusion and pressure on Icelandic nature; over 80% of foreign tourists mention Icelandic nature as the country's main attraction. Geothermal areas play a major role in all this and, therefore, Landvernd launched its project Nature Conservation and Sustainable Tourism in Geothermal Areas in early 2012. The project is designed as the first part of the long-term protection of geothermal energy in Iceland. Iceland's magnificent and distinctive geothermal areas are almost unparalleled in the world, and their diversity is high, both in relation to geology and mineralogy or biology.

There is considerable interest in developing nature tourism in Iceland towards sustainability and the main aims of this project are to promote the protection of the sensitive nature in geothermal areas and reinforce sustainable tourism in such areas. The project is intended to achieve these goals by increasing information material for tourists about the unique topography, geology and biology of Icelandic geothermal areas, their nature conservation value and the importance of responsible behavior, as well as to enhance the security of tourists with better information regarding access and conduct. Geothermal areas are particularly vulnerable to intrusion and traffic and Landvernd feels it is extremely important to ensure the protection of these unique resources so that natives, foreign visitors and future generations can enjoy them too.

The project is divided into five parts: excursions, information material, information signs, forums and short videos. In the summer of 2012 three highly successful excursions took place: to the Reykjanes peninsula, Vonarskarð and the Hengill area. In the summer of 2013 excursions to the Reykjanes peninsula, Lake Mývatn and Askja, West and South Skaftafellssýsla provinces and the Hengill area are planned. Information material for the geothermal area in Vonarskarð has already been published and information signs for Vonarskarð, Reykjadalur valley and Kerlingarfjöll mountains are ready to be installed in the summer of 2013. Two forums have been held on sustainable tourism and nature conservation in geothermal areas, in May 2012 and May 2013, and were both well attended and successful.

The main partners in the project include the Icelandic Institute of Natural History, the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue and the Icelandic Touring Association, as well as landowners or legal guardians of the areas in question, including Vatnajökull National Park, Ölfus municipality, Hveragerði town, the Agricultural University of Iceland and Fannborg in Kerlingarfjöll mountains. The project is funded by the Original Buff via the European Outdoor Conservation Association, the Ministry of Industries and Innovation, Landsbankinn bank, Pálmi Jónsson Nature Conservation Fund, The Tourist Site Protection Fund, and collaborators.