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An Island Is Born

Article #216 • Written by Marisa Brook

Off the coast of Iceland on the morning of 14 November 1963, the crew of a lone fishing trawler spotted an alarming sight. Off to the southwest of the Ísleifur II, a column of dark smoke was rising from the water.

Concerned that it could be another boat on fire, the captain directed his vessel towards the scene. Once there, however, they found not a boat but a series of violent explosions producing ash. This was an unmistakable indication of a volcanic eruption taking place underwater, close to the surface.

Very aware of the potential danger but eager to watch, the crew kept their boat nearby. It was indeed a remarkable event that they would witness a small part of over the course of that morning: the formation of a brand-new island.

There had been some geological warning-signs that volcanic activity was about to occur among Iceland's Vestmannaeyjar (literally, "Westman Islands"). A seismograph in the capital city of Reykjavík had picked up signs of tremors; a marine research team had noted abnormally warm seawater near the site of the eruption; and residents of nearby towns on the coast of the mainland had observed hydrogen sulfide in the air. Certainly the eruption itself had been several days in the making; it would only have become obvious once the volcano had grown to a height at which the water pressure was insufficient to block the explosions.

Although now quite visible, the eruption lasted for much, much longer than the Ísleifur II would have been able to watch. After several days, the volcano had broken the water's surface, forming an island over 500 meters long and 45 meters tall. Even though the rough tides of the North Atlantic might have soon eroded the new island away, it was named Surtsey, meaning 'Surtur's island' - Surtur (or Surtr) being a fire giant of Norse mythology.

Craters on Surtsey
Craters on Surtsey

The island proved to be tenacious, however. The eruption was ongoing and Surtsey increased in size more quickly than the ocean could wear it down. In the meantime two other nearby volcanic eruptions produced the beginnings of islands, but neither lasted very long. By April 1964, though, the most violent parts of the eruption were over and Surtsey remained. It was fairly clear that it was going to be a permanent island - or at least as permanent as anything can be in geology.

At this point, the island caught the attention of biologists and botanists. A brand-new island would be an ideal means of studying the process by which plants (and later animals) arrive on and colonize a piece of land. Surtsey was declared a nature reserve in 1965, restricting access severely. No one had really been on the island, aside from a few rogue French journalists from a questionable publication in 1963. That had been early enough in the island's history not to have made a difference, but now if the public were allowed to set foot on Surtsey, they could unwittingly introduce plant life via the imperceptible transportation of tiny seeds. To this day, only scientists are permitted on the island - and any supplies or equipment carried along have to be handled with a good deal of caution.

Modern Surtsey
Modern Surtsey

The explosions returned in August 1966, and only stopped when the entire eruption finally came to an end in June 1967. Since then, the volcano has lain dormant. The island was left 174 meters tall and about 2.8 square kilometers in size. At 33 kilometers south of the mainland, it also marked the new southernmost point of Iceland.

With that finished, the biocolonization-monitoring project took over. Insects had reached Surtsey by 1964 and moss and lichen had begun to appear between 1965 and 1970; over the next fifteen years, twenty species of plant were observed there, although only half of them lasted in the thin volcanic soil. Gradually, the plant life has become more complex; the number of established plant species has jumped to 30, including one bush first found in 1998.

The emerging plant life helped support the introduction of birds to Surtsey; they began nesting a mere three years after the end of the eruptions. Gulls have been present since 1986, and 2004 saw the discovery of Atlantic puffins. Migrating birds have also used the island as a stopping-place.

Atlantic puffin
Atlantic puffin

The island and its surrounding area have also been host to a variety of marine animals. Seals have bred on the island since 1983 and killer whales have been spotted nearby. Starfish, urchins, and seaweed have also become established on Surtsey.

Today, moss and lichen still make up most of the life on the island, but there has certainly been progress in the way of diversity. Physically, it has decreased a bit in size due to erosion and to the settling of its volcanic material, but is expected to last for centuries to come. Likewise, the invaluable contributions to science from the study of Surtsey are not over yet.

Article written by Marisa Brook, published on 02 September 2006. Marisa lives in Toronto, Canada. She collects postcards, fridge magnets, lapel pins, interesting rocks, and linguistics degrees.

Article design and artwork by Alan Bellows. Edited by Alan Bellows.

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Posted 02 September 2006 at 07:56 am

Ah, damn interesting. It makes you wonder what the land you live on looked like when it was formed. Great Job.

Posted 02 September 2006 at 09:07 am

Yes, I've heard of this island. Pretty amazing world we live in. :-)

Posted 02 September 2006 at 09:22 am

Damn interesting and educational on top of it!

Posted 02 September 2006 at 10:45 am

Very interesting. What I find damn interesting is the idea that humans are not considered part of the environment. Humans are as much a part of natural history as anything. Arbitrarily, any animal except humans are allowed unrestricted access to the island. I suppose it is interesting to see what develops on a new island if humans do not touch it, but it is inherent human nature to touch everything. It is artificial for humans not to go there.

Posted 02 September 2006 at 11:17 am

interesting that plants started only 2-5 years after the eruption. Mammals are using it only 20 years later. I wonder how hot the ground is at this point?

Nastimann has a point, but let's wait a while before we put a hotel resort on the darn thing.

A related thought is how long would it take our huge parking lots to break down and disappear?

Posted 02 September 2006 at 01:12 pm

This is really cool. I think the scientists arent letting people go is because they wanted to get a better idea of what it was like before humans, like what redsox said.

Posted 02 September 2006 at 03:05 pm

Why do scientists always think they can tell the rest of us what to do?

Anthony Kendall
Posted 02 September 2006 at 07:05 pm

JPF said: "Why do scientists always think they can tell the rest of us what to do?"

I assume you're kidding here.

But on the off chance that you are serious, why would people want to go to this island? It has no soil for crops. It is too small to have any potable water supply. It is geologically unstable, not to mention it is situated on top of an active volcano.

The scientific value of the island is tremendous. How often do we get to observe the process of colonization of a brand new island? Sure, people are part of nature, but our interconnectedness means that we cannot go to the island without contaminating it to the point where it is no longer a useful scientific "experiment".

Let's leave it be, and stare in awe at the forces that shape this world without feeling the need to get our hands in there and muck everything up. Just this once.

Posted 02 September 2006 at 10:38 pm

Damn interesting article.

As for the comments about not being allowed to go to the island... Kudos Anthony, you hit the nail on the head. We really have no reason to want to be there, but scientists could learn so much. It's not asking much.

Also an interesting thought from Redsox... I wonder what St Louis, Missouri looked like when it first came about. Amazing to think that this was all once a barren, lifeless wasteland.

Posted 02 September 2006 at 11:03 pm

I think the reasons for not letting people besides researchers on the island are twofold: 1) they want to find out how islands develop into something that support a wide range of life before humans have discovered the area [a la Easter Island, Greenland, Hawai'i before Polynesians migrated there] - it's a rare chance to have near laboratory conditions for an experiment in biology, and 2) they don't really want a Wal-Mart there.

Posted 02 September 2006 at 11:04 pm

FMZ said: "Damn interesting article.

... Amazing to think that this was all once a barren, lifeless wasteland."

Much like the Detroit of today....

(sorry Detroit, I just needed a well known place to fill in that blank.)

Posted 03 September 2006 at 01:44 am

Prehaps now we can develop a better stratagy to terraform other planets.

Mars could use some life.

Posted 03 September 2006 at 08:52 am

In a further reply to JPF, it wasn't the scientists who told somebody what to do, but the democratically elected government of Iceland. I'm glad we (humananity) have this great natural laboratory.

Posted 03 September 2006 at 09:16 am

joshuats said: "Prehaps now we can develop a better stratagy to terraform other planets.

Mars could use some life."

Are you saying we should send a bunch of ash and puffins to mars?

Posted 03 September 2006 at 10:56 am

I have been watching an island this size from a distance and the effect is poetic. The island changes shape. It's not the same throughout. Some days it looks like the letter O, sometimes a C, sometimess an L, sometimes an S. And sometimes you don't see it at all, but this is very rare. It all depends upon the play of tide on it. The island is very white at times too, and sometimes very pink. This is the effect of corals on it. I wrote a poem for this island, in fact.

I hope this one doesn't disappear.

Posted 03 September 2006 at 11:28 am

How many more years until you see 'the golden arches'?

Posted 03 September 2006 at 01:15 pm

So anything evolve there? No? Oh. Ok.

Posted 03 September 2006 at 06:55 pm

The article is interesting to the 'nth' degree, but we shouldn't get our hopes up that evolution or much of anything is going to be witnessed in the first few centuries of observation. It is merely the egotistical nature of the human condition that expects to see 'results' within our individual lifetimes. Hard to imagine that all of the wonders of the last few decades may turn out to be a mere 'blip' on the screen of evolution...even humankind itself has the potential to be nothing more than a fluke. On the other hand, we are certainly providing unique entertainment for ourselves and any other spectators that are or will tune in to watch.

Posted 03 September 2006 at 11:45 pm

Good thing they thought of using it for the experiment, its perfect to find out neat stuff...

Posted 04 September 2006 at 12:16 pm

kevanbt said: "how long would it take our huge parking lots to break down and disappear?"

Look up a photo log showing the current state of the lands surounding Chernobyl. There is one exceptional set by a young girl on a motorbike that I cannot remember the name of... It shows two great things: 1) a snapshot of Soviet Russia from a few days before a celebration, 2)how nature will take over if we just suddenly disappeared.

Posted 04 September 2006 at 09:33 pm

Shandooga said: "So anything evolve there? No? Oh. Ok."

Looks like God's been a bit slow on the uptake too...must be busy tending the rest of His flock.

fatal retreat
Posted 05 September 2006 at 01:37 am

hey guys,

would you believe?.. I actually live on one of those islands! :D

yeah! but it's no longer that interesting... :S hehe

Posted 06 September 2006 at 04:37 pm

The Chernobyl website you are talking about is a damn interesting read in itself.

I was not aware of this place, it is damn interesting and best left alone so we can learn from it.

Posted 09 September 2006 at 07:12 am

openside said: "Looks like God's been a bit slow on the uptake too…must be busy tending the rest of His flock."

Or chilling with Santa, the Easter Bunny, Zuess, He-Man, Aquaman, the Boogieman, the tooth fairy, etc.

Posted 13 September 2006 at 03:48 pm

mHagarty said: "Or chilling with Santa, the Easter Bunny, Zuess, He-Man, Aquaman, the Boogieman, the tooth fairy, etc."

Don't put down the human's only power for sanity, it may make them angry;)
Watch what you say God may stomp on you

Posted 15 November 2006 at 02:29 am

damn interesting

Posted 23 January 2010 at 11:41 am

joshuats said: "Prehaps now we can develop a better stratagy to terraform other planets.

Mars could use some life."

I just read about this the other day. Apparently the strategy is all there, it would just be wicked expensive and take about a thousand years. Not to mention the ethical debate that would ensue. I can't find the article online, unfortunately, but it's on pages 30 to 33 of the February 2010 issue of National Geographic. The general idea is to break down the ice and some of the rocks of Mars into nice atmospheric gases like water and carbon dioxide, then introduce lichens, mosses, et cetera over the next few centuries.

Posted 09 August 2014 at 11:11 pm

Shandooga said: "So anything evolve there? No? Oh. Ok."

there is evolution over there, new plant species have been discovered too, go check other articles

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