According to Saving Iceland, the Thjórsárver wetlands of central Iceland are a unique ecosystem. Located in Iceland’s interior, the wetlands stretch 120 square kilometres from the Hofsjökull glacier in the northern highlands to surrounding volcanic deserts and are characterized by remarkable biodiversity. A description on the World Wildlife Fund website points not only to the variance of the landscape itself—“tundra meadows intersected with numerous glacial and spring-fed streams, a large number of pools, ponds, lakes and marshes, and rare permafrost mounds”—but also to the area’s unique plant and birdlife. It is registered as a Ramsar site.
Thjórsárver is fed by Iceland’s longest river, Thjórsá. BirdLife International have recognized the Thjórsárver wetlands as an Important Bird Area, primarily because of its importance for the Pink-footed Goose (Anser brachyrynchus).
The wetlands are also a hotspot for controversy. The issue is whether the building of reservoirs and other infrastructure for hydroelectric power development within the wetlands should go ahead. The Thjórsá River is vital not only to the Thjórsárver wetlands, but also to Iceland’s hydroelectric industry.
In the 1960s, Landsvirkjun, Iceland’s national power company, announced plans to construct a 200km2 reservoir that would have inundated almost all of the wetlands, including the breeding grounds of the Pink-footed Goose. In response to public opposition, the project was abandoned in 1981 and the Icelandic government established the Thjórsárver Nature Reserve in part of the wetlands. This protection is not absolute however.
Accordingly, Landsvirkjun proposed a 30m-high dam with a smaller reservoir covering some 65km2. Facing mounting criticism from both scientists and the local population, Landsvirkjun lowered its ambitions again, and is now proposing a 24m-high dam with a 32.5km2 reservoir.
Conservation groups such as Birdlife International and the Iceland Nature Conservation Association have shown concern for the loss of habitat.
Originally, the energy from Thjórsárver would have been used for the expansion of the Rio Tinto Alcan smelter at Straumsvik, Hafnafjordur. However, in 2007 a local referendum there ruled against the expansion.