Gudmundur Pall Olafsson, who for decades was in the forefront of Iceland’s conservation movement, died at Landspitali - The National University Hospital, Iceland, on August 31, at the age of seventy-one. The cause was cancer. Olafsson was prodigiously productive. Over the past quarter of a century, he produced major books on the birds of Iceland, on Iceland’s geology, its coastline, and its highlands. Painstakingly researched, lavishly illustrated with maps and stunning photographs, many taken by the author, these magnificent reference books reflect Olafsson’s unique combination of talents and interests. After studying biology and teaching in Iceland, he pursued postgraduate studies in marine biology in Sweden, then spent a year in the United States studying art and design. Olafsson was the recipient of many prizes and awards, including the prestigious Icelandic Literary Award. (Unfortunately, only one of his books, the one dealing with Iceland’s geology and landscape, has been brought out in an English translation, under the title Iceland the Enchanted.)
In the summer of 1998, in protest against the government’s policy of building dams throughout the highlands to provide hydropower for foreign aluminum companies, Olafsson planted an Icelandic flag, at half-mast, within a remote geothermal area that was being sacrificed to encourage foreign investment. He did so, Olafsson said, “in sign of mourning for the loss, for all time, of this unique and beautiful part of our country.” The story of how the country’s flag came to be fluttering at half-mast above a flooded area in the highlands led the evening news programs, giving Olafsson a national platform for expressing his views on the government’s dam-building policy.
Former president Vigdis Finnboggadottir said of his effort to advance the cause of conservation, “He has played a very important role through his extraordinary books and by giving himself, his heart, to this struggle.”
The working title of Olafsson’s last book was Water, the World, and Us, which Olafsson described as “an Icelandic contribution to the international discourse on water – mankind’s most vital resource.” Research for this project took him to South America, Africa, and Asia. He hiked in the Andes, rowed on the Mekong, and soared over the Himalaya in an ultra light. Returning home, he immediately set to work on the text, but was unable to complete the work. Gudmundur Pall Olafsson is survived by his wife, Ingun Jakobsdottir, and three daughters.