Iceland glacier national park, Iranian forest named World Heritage sites

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REYKJAVIK (AFP) - Unesco on Friday (July 5) added Iceland's Vatnajokull National Park, Europe's largest with a landscape of "fire and ice," to its World Heritage List, along with Iran's Hyrcanian forests, praised for their "remarkable" biodiversity.

Shaped by volcanoes and surrounded by lava fields, the Vatnajokull park is also home to the largest glacier in Europe, after which it is named.

The protected area of some 14,500 sq km - or 14 per cent of the whole country - is "an exceptional example of both the interplay of ice and fire and of the separation of earth's tectonic plates on land," according to Unesco.

"This recognition of the outstanding universal value of the Vatnajokull National Park will benefit the area and further ensure its integrity," Education Minister Lilja Alfredsdottir told AFP.

"We are all responsible for its magnificent nature and history."

The glacier, which covers more than half of the park and 8 per cent of Iceland's surface, reaches over several volcanic systems, including two of the most active volcanoes on the island, Grimsvotn and Bardabunga.

Iceland's highest point, Hvannadalshnjukur at 2,110m, is located at the southern edge of the glacier.

Tourists often flock to the peak to admire the view, when they aren't found at the Jokulsarlon lagoon, located at the foot of the ice cap with its characteristic small turquoise blue icebergs.

The park also contains the Lakagigar, a row of craters formed in a violent eruption in 1783, when lava spewed out of the mountain for months.

The spread of toxic ash ruined pastures leading to sickness and death of livestock and a subsequent famine killed around 10,000 people.

Some have argued that the event, which also had an impact on much of Europe, was one of the triggers of the French Revolution of 1789.

Vatnajokull National Park is the third Icelandic site to join Unesco's World Heritage List, after Thingvellir National Park in 2004, where the oldest parliament in the world was established, and the volcanic island of Surtsey in 2008.

Iran's ancient Hyrcanian forests, in northern part of the country, run for 850km along the coast of the Caspian Sea.

"Their floristic biodiversity is remarkable," Unesco said, with some 44 per cent of Iran's known vascular plants found in the Hyrcanian area.

The forests, which date back up to 50 million years, are also home to the Persian leopard and nearly 60 other mammal species, as well as 160 bird species.

Iran's only other natural site listed by Unesco is the Lut Desert in the country's south-west, which gained the status three years ago. The Islamic republic also has 22 cultural sites on the World Heritage List, including the jewel of the first Persian empire Persepolis.