This story is excerpted and adapted from Egill Bjarnason’s How Iceland Changed the World: The Big History of a Small Island, published in May 2021 by Penguin Books.
Two years before making history with one small step onto the Moon, Neil Armstrong went salmon fishing in northern Iceland. A picture of him, standing by a river, is exhibited in a regional museum, but the image is so small that at first you might assume it’s just a regular snapshot of recreational life in the 1960s. Smiling faintly as he holds a fishing rod, the 36-year-old Armstrong could pass for a local—until you notice his baseball cap and fancy aviator shades. And, of course, his four layers of clothing.
Armstrong was just one of the prospective spacemen around Iceland that summer, all living in NASA training camps in the interior. The constant daylight of long summer days obscured their ultimate destination. They were there because in the middle of Iceland’s Highlands, NASA had found a landscape that paralleled the lunar: no vegetation, no life, no colors, no landmarks. The entire area was essentially a natural gravel field.
“If you want to go to a place on Earth that looks like the Moon,” wrote Elbert King, a geologist from the University of Houston who trained Apollo astronauts, “Central Iceland should be high on your list, as it beautifully displays volcanic geology with virtually no vegetation cover.” The would-be astronauts took advantage of the bare ground by splitting into teams and playing soccer to unwind after training days, using rocks to mark the goalposts. A walk to the nearest tree would have taken the men days. They would’ve had to cross the Hólasandur, the black sand desert, and head toward the northeastern coast. Even then, the tree, weather-beaten like everything else on the eroded North Atlantic island, wasn’t much taller than Armstrong’s fishing rod.
The term “lunar landscape” is a phrase often used to describe the boundless Icelandic deserts, shaped by volcanic eruptions and covered in different shades of lava. The volcanic regions of Iceland are great training fields “owing to their desiccation, low nutrient availability, and temperature extremes, in addition to the advantages of geological youth and isolation from sources of anthropogenic contamination,” according to a 2018 NASA document.
Thus their very barrenness is an asset. But lately, creeping about these deserts is a peculiar purple alien: the Alaskan lupine. This plant arrived on the scene not long after the astronauts, and it was at first embraced as an efficient cover for eroded land. But the experiment blew up in Iceland’s face and left a permanent purple mark. Now the lupine is considered an invasive plant, as it threatens not only the existing flora but also the barren volcanic interior, a place of “magnificent desolation,” the words Buzz Aldrin once used to describe the Moon.
The rolling black sands of Hólasandur where the astronauts once traveled is today a purple field. As the climate changes, the lupine spreads into places previously protected from the plant by cold temperatures and low rainfall. Some Icelanders welcome the Alaskan flower; some decry its invasion. It’s a highly contentious issue, as the fight for Iceland’s color has spurred a new form of identity politics.
Lupinus nootkatensis—known in its native Alaska and British Columbia as the Nootka lupine—is a member of the pea family. In gardening parlance, it’s a nitrogen fixer: It hosts bacteria that gather nitrogen from the air and then transfer the gas to the plant’s roots. If you plow under lupines (or peas for that matter), the nitrogen is released into the soil, providing nourishment for the plants that follow. It’s a pretty and elegant solution to nurturing exhausted soil. The Alaskan lupine arrived in Iceland in 1945 in a suitcase. But the story of its deliberate introduction began some thousand years before its arrival.
When the first settlers disembarked from Viking ships in the ninth century, two thirds of the island was covered in greenery, and it had only one terrestrial mammal, the Arctic fox. The island’s first humans settled in with a shipload of livestock and began to pursue the same agrarian lifestyle they were used to, cutting down trees and burning the wood, totally oblivious to the damage they were doing. Iceland’s soil forms more slowly and erodes much more quickly than mainland Europe’s.
By the time the government formed the Icelandic Forest Service in 1908, the early settlers would have hardly recognized the stark coastline. By then, Iceland was ecologically “the most heavily damaged country in Europe,” to quote celebrity polymath and author Jared Diamond. Wind erosion was, grain by grain, blowing the country out to sea. The destruction continued unabated. By the mid-20th century, when other European nations were rebuilding after World War II, the Icelandic Forest Service was pondering human-induced destruction of a different kind. Icelanders had so heavily exploited their island home by logging the native birch forests and overgrazing the land that only 25 percent of the country’s original green cover remained.
The agency sought solutions abroad. They sent their director, Hákon Bjarnason, on a three-month mission to Alaska. His task was to gather plants and trees he liked and those he thought could thrive in Iceland. The return stamp in his passport, November 3, 1945, marks the birth of our lupine saga.
For the first three decades, the plant lived in green spaces near Reykjavík. Arni Bragason, director of the Soil Conservation Service of Iceland, told me that it wasn’t until 1976 that the lupine’s seeds were actively collected and released into the wild, tasked with bolstering the country’s feeble soil. Lupines performed admirably and acted like fertilizer factories, purpling the landscape at almost no cost and without the need for special training: Seeds could be collected by anyone, tossed into a hole no larger than a shoe’s heel and—abracadabra—the scenery eventually changed. Maybe forever.
In 2006, I was standing at the entrance of a grocery store in Selfoss, waiting to snag passersby for “The Question of the Day,” a newspaper column. Environmental questions were always tough; no sane person visits the grocery store to discuss the death of our planet. But this day I struck a chord with what seemed like a pretty lightweight query: What do you think about the Alaskan lupine? Everyone had an opinion. The people at the grocery store fell, as a rule, into either pro- or anti-lupine camps; there was no ambivalence. Most answers were long and emotional, not dispassionately scientific.
The first two people told me anecdotes about lupine magic: how it prevented erosion and blowing sand and made it possible to plant trees. The third said the lupine had destroyed the view from his summer cottage. The fourth claimed to destroy lupine lands in his free time, but was hesitant to state this publicly. Almost everyone predicted two different futures: There was one with lupine, and one without lupine. And the fifth person gave a lengthy rant that I, due to space considerations, trimmed down to a single question: “Lupine, everywhere! How did this happen?”
Many of the people I questioned had witnessed lupine’s invasion in real time. If you drive the Ring Road in early summer, it’s like barreling down a road paved straight through an endless succession of lupine fields, as though the flowers came first, and it’s we who are the invaders. But they didn’t. The magnificent desolation has been replaced by waves of purple-blue, a sight that has thrilled tourists for decades along the popular southern coastline. While covering the issue for The New York Times, I met a couple from Texas posing for an engagement photo against a field of blossoms near the Skógar waterfall. Dressed elegantly, they had to pose on top of their car in order to be seen in the midst of the three-foot-tall plants. A farmer near Kirkjubæjarklaustur told me that sandstorms used to force the roads to close many times per year before the lupine cover. Farther east on the national road, it seems that lupine seeds were—at some point—tossed into the moss grown Eldhraun lava field, the one formed by the cataclysmic 1873 Laki eruption.
At this point, every Icelander has gazed upon a field of purple. And many are lupine lovers. The allies of the lupine are particularly enamored with before and after photographs. Some extol the virtues of the flower as a reforestation tool—trees planted alongside lupines benefit from the enriched soil. Once large enough, trees steal light from the almost-foot-high flowers, and over the next 25 to 30 years, once the soil is fertile enough for other things to grow, the lupines naturally recede. At least in theory.
The regreening of Iceland has become a balancing act: We want to retain the renowned splendor of our naturally occurring volcanic deserts, but we also need to revegetate what we’ve lost. The lovers and the haters each have valid points. Today, the Alaskan lupine covers 0.5 percent of Iceland’s land surface, according to estimates based on aerial footage. That may sound meager, but considering that the country’s forests amount only to less than 155 square miles, it’s a lot of lupines. And while planted forest cover is predicted to reach about 1.6 percent in 2085 at the current rate, the purple flower coverage could potentially soar into double digits, aided by climate change and human activity. “Exponential growth is the nature of invasive species,” says botanist Pawel Wasowicz, who is the lupine expert at the Icelandic Institute of Natural History. The growth curve, he estimates, will see a dramatic peak sometime in the next two decades.
According to the Institute, invasive species have enormous potential to edge out existing flora in Iceland and spread into the highland interior, which is currently too cold and dry for most plants. This naturally occurring lunar landscape could, in other words, disappear. In about 30 years, under the current rate of climate change, the lupine could colonize much of the highland, suggests a research paper published in the journal Flora in 2013. Naturalist and former member of parliament Hjörleifur Guttormsson, who is 86 and one of the earliest opponents of the plant, says, “Everything but the glaciers are potential lupine land.”
Few countries are as vulnerable to global warming as Iceland. Glaciers have retreated by about 850 square miles since the end of the 19th century, when glaciers covered the greatest amount of landmass since Iceland’s settlement, according to the Icelandic Meteorological Office. Almost 309 square miles of that has occurred just in the last 20 years. The glaciers are melting so quickly that the National Power Company of Iceland, which is owned by the Icelandic state and processes 75 percent of all electricity nationwide, is preparing for a future without any of the powerful glacial rivers used to power hydroelectric dams, the current source of 70 percent of Iceland’s electricity. In 2019, the warmest summer on record in Reykjavík, mosquito spray sold out all over due to a sudden explosion of biting midges. Even invasive flowers such as the lupine are threatened by other, taller invasive species such as cow parsley, a flower that reduces biodiversity and does little to enrich the soil. As lupine and cow parsley displace heath, Iceland’s only native bee—the heath bumblebee—is at risk of serious decline.
The purpling of the landscape is the most visible evidence of how quickly human activities are changing the face of Iceland. But it may herald even more drastic changes to come.
Today NASA is making fresh tracks in Iceland’s interior, preparing to explore the fourth rock from the sun: Mars. The prototype of the Mars 2020 Rover was tested on the subglacial terrain of the interior, which theoretically resembles what Mars looked like before it turned into the inhospitable Red Planet. Specifically, NASA is after fossilized microbes. If found, they would be the first-ever sign of life beyond our Blue Marble.
According to a local joke, when the Apollo astronauts were leaving the country, a Reykjavík resident asked them to deliver an Icelandic message to the Man in the Moon: Við ætlum að leggja landið undir okkur hægt og rólega, ekki treysta neinum loforðum um annað. The astronaut, oblivious to its meaning, memorized the sentence and later repeated it for the aliens in space. It means: “We’re going to gradually take over this place; don’t trust a word we say.”