The Mývatn District of Iceland: Sustainability, Environment and Change

ca. AD 1700 to 1950 (MYSEAC)


The MYSEAC project (Award 163133-051) was funded by RANNÍS (The Icelandic Centre for Research). It was administered by the Reykjavík Academy (see but is included here because of the participation of Astrid Ogilvie and Viðar Hreinsson, both Senior Scientists at the Stefansson Arctic Institute (SAI). The Co-Leaders of MYSEAC were Árni Daníel Júlíusson, (SAI, Reykjavík Academy, University of Iceland) and Ragnhildur Sigurðardóttir, (Reykjavík Academy). The Co-PIs were: Viðar Hreinsson, (SAI, Reykjavík Academy, Natural History Museum of Iceland); Megan Hicks, (Hunter College, City University of New York); and Astrid Ogilvie (SAI). The project period was 2016-2018.

The primary objective of the project was to investigate the management and utilization of vegetation, haymaking and grazing in Mývatn (the administrative community of Skútustaðahreppur, also referred to as Mývatnssveit, or, in English, the Lake Mývatn area or Mývatn district) during the period 1700-1950. Relevant supporting and comparative material from adjacent regions were also included. This project was a continuation of a pilot project entitled Investigations of the Long Term Sustainability of Human Ecodynamics Systems in Northern Iceland (MYCHANGE) funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) of the USA during 2014-2016. This project focused primarily on collecting data, historical documents and manuscripts on the patterns of landscape change in the Mývatn district. The results of MYCHANGE included the identification and collection of the largest data set on the use of vegetation resources for any area of Iceland, for a period of 250 years, specifically for AD 1700-1950, as well as new insights into the reasons for successes and failures in land management. However, the NSF grant did not include funds to assess and analyse the data.

The MYSEAC project facilitated the processing of the large data set that was collected, as well as the analysis of promising new data sources in order to address and answer critical aspects of the overarching research question of the project: What were the varying factors that influenced the success or failure of the hay crop and grazing systems, and what factors impacted the sustainable use of these resources by communities dependent on them for their survival in the context of a variable climate. MYSEAC integrated information from the environmental sciences, archaeology, and the humanities, in order to identify both environmental changes, and the human contribution to these changes, and encompassed data derived from three main disciplines: geospatial studies; archaeology; and historical and literary studies. Methods included analysing information contained in the database using multivariate statistical approaches to begin exploring the relationships between net primary productivity (NPP) of the ecosystems to changes in climatic variables and the vulnerability of the population to these fluxes. This cross-disciplinary project was highly original in that research results were achieved by the parallel analyses of diverse data sets at a variety of temporal and spatial scales in a global as well as a cultural context.

The MYSEAC project formed the basis for an upper-level course (Masters and equivalent) entitled Society and Environment in Mývatnssveit 1700-1950 held at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik in the autumn of 2018 with lectures given by all project members.

Selected Project-Related Publications:

Hreinsson, Viðar. 2018. Ghosts, power, and the natures of nature: reconstructing the world of Jón Guðmundsson the Learned in Framing the Environmental Humanities, edited by Hannes Bergthaller and Peter Mortensen (Studies in Environmental Humanities 5), Brill, 67-85.

Hreinsson, Viðar. 2018. Vicious cycle of violence: the afterlife of Hervör in The Legendary Legacy: Transmission and Reception of the Fornaldarsögur Norðurlanda, ed. Matthew Driscoll, Silvia Hufnagel, Philip Lavender and Beeke Stegmann, Viking Collection 24, Odense, University Press of Southern Denmark, 71-90.

Hreinsson, Viðar. 2018. A matter of context and balance. Pre-industrial conceptualizations of sustainability in Cultural Sustainability and the Nature-Culture Interface: Livelihoods, Policies and Methodologies(ed. by Inger Birkeland, Rob J.F. Burton, Constanza Parra, Katriina Siivonen) Routledge, 79-92.

Júlíusson, Árni Daníel. 2018. Af hverju strái. Saga af byggð, grasi og bændum 1300-1700. Reykjavík, Háskólaútgáfan.

Ogilvie, A.E.J., Sigurðardóttir, R., Júlíusson, Á.D., Hreinsson, V. and Hicks, M. 2015. Climate, Grass Growth, and Hay Yield in Northeastern Iceland A.D. 1700 to 1950. Program and Abstracts, 45th International Arctic Workshop, Bergen, Norway, 10-13 May 2015, 80-81.

Sigurðardóttir, Ragnhildur, Ogilvie, A.E.J., Júlíusson, Árni Daníel, Hreinsson, Viðar, Hicks, Megan T. 2016. Water and Sustainability in the Lake Mývatn Region of Iceland: Historical Perspectives and Current Concerns. In (Shroder, J.F. and Greenwood, G.B., eds), Mountain Ice and Water: Investigations of the Hydrological Cycle in Alpine Environments, 155-192.

Sigurðardóttir, Ragnhildur, Newton, A., Hicks, M.T., Dugmore, A.J., Hreinsson, Viðar. Ogilvie, A.E.J., Júlíusson, Árni Daníel, Einarsson, Árni, Hartman, S., Simpson, I.A., Vésteinsson, Orri, McGovern, T.H. Trolls, water, time, and community: resource management in the Mývatn district of northeast iceland. Submitted to Historical Ecology special issue on Managing the Commons: an Interdisciplinary Perspective edited by T.H. McGovern and Ludomir Lozny. Springer Volumes in Historical Ecology, Springer, NY.

Turchin, P. and 52 others, including Árni Daníel Júlíusson. 2017. Quantitative historical analysis uncovers a single dimension of complexity that structures global variation in human social organization. PNAS 18 December 2017.