That Iceland is the most lightly forested country in all of Europe is the doing of man, not nature—long-since-deceased man. The AFP reports more than 25% of the island was covered in trees, mostly birch, when the Vikings reached its shores in the late 800s. A century later, only 3% of those trees stood; the rest have been razed for home construction, farmland, and livestock. Reforestation efforts began in earnest in the 1950s, but as of 2015, one state shows that roughly 0.5% of Iceland is forested. The AFP revisits what has made reforestation so difficult and where the effort stands now, checking in with the Icelandic Forest Service, which has been instructed to turn "the lunar landscape"—in this case, a 14,800-acre area in the country's southwest—into a forest.
Volcanoes have blanketed the soil with ash that the New York Times in 2017 noted is actually nutrient-rich. The problem is that it also made the soil very susceptible to erosion, and the lack of vegetation only compounds that. So while there's more than enough rain, some 40% of the country is technically desert. And there isn't much nitrogen in the soil, which sharply curtails the growth rate of the birches, pines, and spruces that are planted to roughly a third of what you'd see in Alaska. But the overall effort is a priority, one the country sees as a way to fight climate change, and roughly 1,000 hectares have been planted since 2015; that's as many as 4 million trees. The figure may sound impressive, until you stack it against what China planted in the same time: up to 7 million hectares. (Read more Iceland stories.)