Iceland volcano sparks unique workshop on ecological restoration

May 31, 2011

"The best conference that never happened" —Gudmundur Halldorsson

How do restoration ecologists gathered for an international conference recover from a record-setting volcanic eruption?
Joy Zedler
Joy Zedler

Joy Zedler, professor of botany at UW-Madison and an affiliate faculty member in the Nelson Institute, recently found out. Her plane was the last allowed to land in Reykjavik, Iceland, on Sunday, May 22, just hours after the Grimsvotn volcano spewed its cloud of ash across the southeastern part of the country.

As Zedler arrived in Reykjavik for the "Restoring the North" (ReNo) conference, speaker cancellations poured in from Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and the Faeroes.

On Monday, conference organizers Gudmundur Halldorsson and Kristin Svarvarsdottir of the Soil Conservation Service of Iceland and Asa Aradottir of the Agricultural University of Iceland called off the event, scrapped months of planning and scrambled to "restore" their event, much in the way ecologists tackle damaged ecosystems: with many possible objectives, fewer participants than needed and no time to work out optimal approaches.

But Icelanders are both efficient and adaptable. Conference hosts switched gears and planned a workshop for Tuesday morning, inviting local scientists and students to exchange ideas and experiences. Zedler was a willing contributor, suggesting that the substitute workshop could be an opportunity to frame and endorse a resolution to strengthen Iceland's national policy on ecosystem restoration. Taking ideas from a dinner table conversation, Zedler wrote the first draft as daylight faded into the brief darkness of an Arctic spring.

Grimsvotn volcano NASA Goddard Photo
Grimsvotn volcano showing plume, May 22. Photo
credit NASA Goddard.

Early on Tuesday, Zedler presented her recommendations for "Setting Objectives and Assessing Restoration"—a talk that grew out of her work at the UW-Madison Arboretum. Aradottir reciprocated with an overview of Iceland's main restoration challenge, which is soil erosion across 40 percent of the country—some 40,000 square kilometers—where overgrazing and cultivation have damaged highly erodible volcanic soils.

While the workshop was small, it included Iceland's principal critics of others' widespread plantings of an Alaskan lupine. Lupine plants are valuable in restoring barren land because they facilitate nitrogen fixation by soil micro-organisms, but the use of a non-native plant opens the door for unintended negative impacts. In fact, the Alaskan lupine is already considered an invasive species. The question became, how can those in denial become better informed about the loss of native species as the invader takes over, and how might national policy be developed to curb the use of alien species?

It's not difficult for visitors to appreciate the magnitude of Iceland's lupine invasion. The plant is abundant along most roadsides and on slopes of nearby mountains. In a few weeks, the bright green hillsides will be blue with lupine flowers. What is difficult to find are ways to help Iceland's Minister of the Environment see the need to swap native soil-enriching species for the Alaskan invader. The impromptu workshop became a valuable venue to develop policy on how ecological restoration should proceed using native species.

Alien lupine near Reykjavik, Iceland
Alien lupine near Reykjavik, Iceland. Photo credit
Joy Zedler.

Drawing from her experience with the Invasive Plant Association of Wisconsin, Zedler suggested drafting a resolution to promote native species (rather than attacking alien species), to do so within a broad context, to allow stakeholders to vet the text until it became their own, and finally, to gain acceptance by allowing future revisions by a much broader stakeholder group once the ReNo conference is rescheduled.

Serendipity and synergism were important ingredients. By noon on Tuesday, workshop attendees had achieved consensus. Thus ended "the best restoration conference that never happened," as described by Halldorsson.

As the ash cloud and its ramifications spread throughout Europe, the ReNo conference was being planned again for fall 2011. Even with further blasts of ash, the team is poised to influence national policy and improve efforts to "Restore the North."

Out of necessity, restoration ecologists are adaptable; they know that surprises are the norm when trying to manipulate nature. As UW-Madison's Grant Cottam advised practitioners in 1987, we should "expect the unexpected." Still, it was remarkable to bring collective ideas to a formal resolution in a single day.

Our thanks to Joy Zedler for sharing this report.