An unexpected birch forest is growing on Skeiðarársandur sand plain, South Iceland, RÚV reports. Since the first trees were spotted around 1996, the forest has grown to cover an area nearly 40 km² (15.4 miles²). The tallest trees have reached a height of 3.5 metres (11.5 feet).
“Here definitely a lot has begun to grow,” states Þóra Ellen Þórhallsdóttir, Professor of Botany at the University of Iceland. She adds that the growth is quite surprising, as in order for birch to succeed in the area its seeds needed to have “a mild winter, a good summer, and a rather good winter following that.”
At 1300 km² (502 miles²), Skeiðarársandur is the largest sand plain in the world. It stretches from the south side of Vatnajökull, Iceland’s largest glacier, down to the Atlantic Ocean, and is crisscrossed by several large and small rivers. The Grímsvötn eruption in 1996 caused a large jökulhlaup (glacial outburst) which flooded the sand plain. The sediment deposited by the outburst may be a leading factor in the current growth the area is experiencing.
Þóra Ellen and Kristín Svavarsdóttir, plant chemist, have been following the growth of birch on Skeiðarársandur for nearly two decades, alongside other specialists. In the past two years they have used drones to photograph and map the birch on the sand.
If the forest’s growth continues it could become the largest natural birch forest in Iceland in as little as 10 years.