Iceland’s Living Laboratory

Environmental research in Iceland by Le Moyne students and faculty began in 2006 when Drs. Larry Tanner and the late David Smith first brought students to the glacial landscapes of the south coast for the initial offering of the Iceland ecosystems class. This trial run identified the areas and topics for research by students in the class and for independent projects for subsequent years.

Primary succession and soil development at Skaftafell

Iceland Research

The Skaftafellsjökull, near the south coast, is an outlet glacier from the giant Vatnajökull ice cap. Like most of Iceland’s glaciers it has been retreating since the late nineteenth century due to climate change. This recession has gradually exposed the ground that was buried by the ice, allowing the start of the plant colonization and soil formation processes that characterize primary succession. Over the years, students have collected data by making careful measurements of the percentage of the ground surface covered by vegetation, identifying plant species, sampling soils for analysis and measuring the rate of CO2 production by the soil. 

This work has documented that the vegetation coverage and carbon content of the soil increases with distance from the front of the glacier, which is a proxy for the age of the land surface (Tanner et al., 2013).

Iceland ResearchersOne of the lines of research conducted in 2007 was a documentation of the change in the plant species across the glacial foreland, the exposed land area in front of the glacier, from younger ground close to the glacier to older ground farther from the glacier. In 2014, the student team, led by Taylor Glaussen, returned to the same sites studied in 2007 to repeat the species measurements. The comparison of the 2007 and 2014 results established trends in the proportions of different plant types during succession (Glaussen and Tanner, 2019). 

Iceland ResearchersMost recently, Tanner, with students Haley Synan and Mikael Ann Melfi, conducted a detailed study on the Skaftafell foreland counting the numbers of individual plants of three woody-stemmed species (birch and willows) to test the controls on their distribution and look for possible interactions between the species. They are still analyzing the data and plan to calculate rates of biomass addition to the landscape through these measurements. The team plans to continue this work at other locations on the south coast in 2020

Vegetation and albedo on the Skeiðarársandur

Student Researchers in Iceland

The Skeiðarársandur is a sandy outwash plain formed by the streams that drain the Skeiðarárjökull, a large outlet glacier located just west of the Skaftafellsjökull. Much of this plain is an expanse of dark sand and gravel, devoid of vegetation, but portions are vegetated, mainly by moss and small shrubs. Tanner, with students Hunter Powell and Megan Vandewarker studied the Skeiðarársandur in 2018 to measure the effect of the vegetation on energy absorption and soil formation. In much of the Arctic, the growth of vegetation creates a landscape that is darker, and therefore absorbs more solar energy. On the Skeiðarársandur, however, they found that the vegetated surface is lighter and more reflective than the barren sand plain and the soil stores more carbon (Tanner and Vandewarker, 2019). This work also might continue in other locations on the south coast in subsequent years.


Papers in refereed journals (* undergraduate student or former student)

Grewen Hall
Glausen, T.G.*, Tanner, L.H., 2019.  Successional trends and processes on a glacial foreland in Southern Iceland studied by repeated species counts. Ecological Processes 8:11.

Tanner, L.H., Vandewarker, M.M.*, 2019. Significance of vegetation cover differences on albedo and soil carbon on a basaltic sandplain in southern Iceland. AIMS Environmental Science  6(6): 435–444. DOI: 10.3934/environsci.2019.6.435

Tanner, L.H., Nivison, M.*, Arnalds, O., Svavarsdottir, K., 2015. Soil carbon accumulation and CO2 flux in experimental restoration plots, southern Iceland: comparing soil treatment strategies. Applied and Environmental Soil Science,

Tanner, L.H., Walker, A.E.*, Nivison, M.*, Smith, D.L., 2013. Changes in soil composition and floral coverage on a glacial foreland chronosequence, southern Iceland. Open Journal of Soil Science 3, 191-198.