Sand dune - Country Report, Iceland

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This article on the sand dunes in Iceland, derives from the 'Sand Dune Inventory of Europe' (Doody ed. 1991) [1]. The 1991 inventory was prepared under the umbrella of the European Union for Dune Conservation [EUDC]. The original inventory was presented to the European Coastal Conservation Conference, held in the Netherlands in November 1991. It attempted to provide an overview of the sand dune resource throughout the whole of Europe including Scandinavia, the Atlantic coast and the Mediterranean.

An overview article on European sand dunes provides links to the other European country reports. These represent chapters from updated individual country reports included in the revised, 2nd Edition of the 'Sand Dune Inventory of Europe' prepared for the International Sand Dune Conference “Changing Perspectives in Coastal Dune Management”, held from the 31st March - 3rd April 2008, in Liverpool, UK (Doody ed. 2008)[2].

Status: Original author, Sigurdur Greipsson. Original text with minor revisions 2007 and a new map, J Patrick Doody, 2007.


Sand dunes in Iceland occur inland and on the coast. The inland dunes cover up to 200,000ha. Inland dunes only occur across the middle of the country from south to north in the volcanic zone. Coastal dunes cover approximately 120,000ha occurring mainly on the south coast (Figure). East and west fjords are characterised by cliffs and small sand reefs.

Figure: Distribution of the main coastal sand dune areas of Iceland (orange). The main glaciers provide melt-water and deliver sediment to the sea (light grey). The annual amount of sediment in tons is given for each river outlet (redrawn from Gneipsson & El-Mayas 1994)[3].

Distribution and type of dune

Most sands in Iceland are black due to their volcanic origin. Yellow sand dunes are very scarce. Glacial rivers, retreating glaciers and volcanic eruptions constantly bring materials for the growth of new sand dunes.


The flora of Iceland has only about 440 vascular plants and only a few of these are halophytic coastal species. The sand dunes of Iceland have complex associations of vegetation depending on geographical locality.


Cakile arctica forms scattered colonies along the shoreline. Other species include Honckenya peploides, Atriplex longipes and Leymus arenarius.


L. arenarius occurs in association with Mertensia maritima, Honckenya peploides, Silene maritima, Festuca rubra, Rumex acetosella and Potentilla anserina.

Yellow dune

The main dune building species, Leymus arenarius, is usually the only plant present.

Dune grassland

Grassland develops to landward with Festuca rubra, Silene maritima and Equisetum arvensis. On older back dunes, other grasses may also occur including Festuca ovina and Poa spp., which may occur in association with Leymus arenarius. Scrub including willows (Salix spp.) is also present in these same areas.

Important sites

The original inventory, listed 15 important sand dune systems protected by either the National Conservation Council of Iceland (NCCI) or the Soil Conservation Service of Iceland (SCSI)[1]. There is no recent information, hence the list is not included in this article. However, the Iceland Conservation Register provides a list of protected species and areas, national parks and sites of special interest, which includes sand dunes. (Hughes 1995)[4] It is maintained by the Icelandic Nature Conservancy Council, although no link could be found on the Internet.


Deforestation and the introduction of sheep helped to create the extensive mobile sands occurring in Iceland. It has, and still faces, tremendous problems with soil erosion. Although some sand dunes are protected, others, including those that receive a constant supply of sand, are threatened. Sand stabilisation is a constant requirement (Runolfsson 1987)[5]. On the south coast, it has prevented the abandonment of several successful fishing villages. Tree planting is a major pastime for the people of Iceland (see BBC report 2005 @ [2]).

Original contact: Dr. Sigurdur Greipsson,


  1. Doody, J.P., ed., 1991. Sand Dune Inventory of Europe. Peterborough, Joint Nature Conservation Committee/European Union for Coastal Conservation.
  2. Doody, J.P., ed. 2008. Sand Dune Inventory of Europe, 2nd Edition. National Coastal Consultants and EUCC - The Coastal Union, in association with the IGU Coastal Commission.
  3. Gneipsson, S. & El-Mayas, H., 1994. Coastal sands of Iceland. EUCC Magazine, Coastline, 3, 36-40.
  4. Hughes, J.M.R., 1995. The current status of European wetland inventories and classifications. Vegetatio, 118, 17-28.
  5. Runolfsson, S., 1987. Land reclamation in Iceland. Arctic and Alpine Research, 19/4, 514-517.

Other referenced sources of information

Runolfsson, S., 1978. Soil conservation in Iceland. In: M.W. Holdgate & M.J. Woodman, eds., The Breakdown and Restoration of Ecosystems. Phleum Press, New York, 231-240.

Sgurbjornsson, B., 1960. Studies on the Icelandic Elymus. Ph. D. Thesis, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.

Tuxen, R., 1970. Pflanzensoziologische Beobachtungen an Islandischen Dunengesellschaften. Vegetatio, 20, 251-278.

Additional references

Additional references provided by Maike Isermann University Bremen, Germany

Fridriksson, S., 1964. Um adflutning lifvera til Surtseyjar. -The colonization of dryland biota on the island of Surtsey of the coast of Iceland. Natturufr, 34/2, Reykjavik.

Greipsson, S. & Davy, A.J., 1994. Germination of Leymus arenarius and its significance for land reclamation in Iceland. Annals of Botany, 73, 493-501.

Gudmundsson, G., 1996. Gathering and processing of lime-grass (Elymus arenarius L. ) in Iceland: An ethnohistorical account. Vegetation history and archaeobotany, 5/1, 2, 13-23.

Hadac, E., 1970. Sea-shore communities of Reykjanes Peninsula, SW. Iceland. Folia Geobotanica et Phytotaxonomica, 5/2, 133-144. Praha.

Hadac, E., 1949. The flora of Reykjanes peninsula SW-Iceland. Bot. Iceland, 5/1, 1-57, Kopenhagen.

Hadac, E., 1946. The plant communities of Sassen Quarter West-Spitzbergen. Studia botanica Cechoslovaca, 7, 127-164.

Steindórsson, S., 1974. A list of Icelandic plantsociations. Rannsóknarstofnunin Neori As, skýrsla, 17, Hverageroi, 23 pp.

Steindórsson, S., 1936. Om vegetationen paa Melrakkasljetta i det norostlige Island. Botanisk Tidsskrift, 43/6, 436-483. Kobenhavn.

Steindórsson, S., 1976. Some notes on the shore vegetation of Iceland. Acta Botanica Islandica, 4, 19-35. Reykjavik.

Steindórsson, S., 1954. The coastline vegetation at Gásar in Eyjafjördur in the north of Iceland. Nytt Magasin Bot., 3, Oslo.

Thannheiser, D., 1995. Die Küstenvegetation auf Island und den Färöer-Inseln. Kölner Geographische Arbeiten, 66, 109-120. Köln.

Thannheiser, D., 1991. Die Küstenvegetation der arktischen und borealen Zone. Berichte der Reinhold Tüxen Gesellschaft, 3, 21-42. Hannover.

Thannheiser, D., 1988. Die Pflanzengesellschaften der isländischen Küstendünen. Norden, 6, 1-12.

Thannheiser, D., 1987. Die Pflanzengesellschaften der isländischen Meeresspülsäume. Münstersche Geographische Arbeiten, 27, 153-160.

Thannheiser, D., 1998. North Atlantic coastal vegetation. Kelletat, D. H., ed. German geographical coastal research. The last decade 1998. Insitut für wissenschaftliche Zusammenarbeit: 221-233, Deile, tübingen.

Thannheiser, D. & Köntges, S., 1998. Der Tourismus auf Spitzbergen. Kieler Geographische Schriften, 97, 265-276.

Thannheiser, D. & Hofmann, W., 1977. Pflanzengesellschaften am Meeresstrand im Kongs- und Krossfjord (West-Spitzbergen). Documents phytosociologiques N. S. 1, 297-303. Lille.

Thannheiser, D., Möller, I. & Wüthrich, C., 1998. Eine Fallstudie über die Vegetationsverhältnisse, den Kohlenstoffhaushalt und mögliche Auswirkungen klimatischer Veränderungen in Westspitzbergen. Verhandlungen der Gesellschaft für ökologie, 28, 475-484.

Thoroddsen, T., 1914. An account of the physical geography of Iceland with special reference to the plant life. Botany of Iceland, 1/2, 187-343 London.

Tüxen, R., 1970. Pflanzensoziologische Beobachtungen an isländischen Dünengesellschaften. Vegetatio, 20, 5/6, 251-278. Den Haag.

Vanden Berghen, C., 1969. Apercu sur la flore et la végétation de l'Islande. Bull. Les Naturalistes belges, 50/2, 57-99. Bruxelles.

See also

The main author of this article is Doody, Pat
Please note that others may also have edited the contents of this article.

Citation: Doody, Pat (2019): Sand dune - Country Report, Iceland. Available from,_Iceland [accessed on 20-05-2024]