The first settlers who ventured to Iceland over 1100 years ago (874) came to a fertile land. Vegetation may have covered 60% of the country, and woodlands, mainly Birch (Betula pubescens), covered at least 25% of the land area. The trees sheltered loose soils of volcanic origin. But the woods were cut, burned and grazed and soon declined rapidly. The initial loss of tree cover marked the beginning of catastrophic soil erosion processes that have devastated the Icelandic ecosystems.
The climatic deterioration in the 16. – 19. centuries and volcanic eruptions speed up the processes. Wind and water removes the soil leaving nothing but rocks and gravel. About 60% of the original vegetation may have been lost. The remaining vegetation is extensively degenerated.
About 96% of the tree cover has been lost, and trees now cover only 1% of Iceland. Poor land condition and continued soil erosion are considered to be the most severe environmental problems in Iceland. More than 37,000 km2 of the country (103,000 km2) are barren deserts and in addition large damaged areas have limited productivity.