The Brand New Island of Surtsey

Apr 28, 2017 1 comments

Located about 30 kilometers off the southern coast of Iceland, lies the small island of Surtsey. It is one of the world's youngest island with an age just over fifty years.

Like all islands, Surtsey was conceived in an underwater volcanic eruption which began at a depth of 130 meters in the Norwegian Sea. Molten lava kept piling up at the bottom and a mound began to rise, until it broke the surface on 14 November 1963, and the island was officially born.


Surtsey on November 30, 1963, 16 days after the beginning of the eruption. Photo credit: Howell Williams.

Surtsey’s fascinating birth was witnessed by the crew of a trawler that was sailing in the vicinity. On seeing a dark column of smoke rise at the distance, the captain thought that a boat was on fire, and ordered the vessel to investigate. Instead, they found a growing island. Within a few days, the island measured over 500 meters in length and had reached a height of 45 meters.

The new island was named after Surtur, the fire god from Norse mythology. Less than three weeks after the island first appeared, a team of three French journalist dared to set foot on the still smoldering rock. They remained for fifteen minutes before a violent explosion forced them to leave. Fortunately, the French did not try to claim the island, although the journalists did joke about it. Before things got more serious and political, Iceland quickly asserted control over the new island.

Meanwhile, the volcano continued to erupt and the island kept growing. When eruption finally stopped on 5 June 1967, the island had grown to a size of 2.7 square kilometer. Its highest point was 174 meters above the sea level. However, since the end of eruption, the island has been diminishing in size. The island is made mostly of a loose pile of volcanic rock known as tephra, which is being rapidly eroded away by the North Atlantic. As of 2012, its surface area has halved and its maximum elevation has fallen to 155 meters. At this rate, the island is expected to last another 100 years. However, scientists expects the rate of erosion to slow down over the years as the tougher core of the island, made of hard lava flows, is exposed. So the island may survive for many centuries.


A lava eruption in Surtsey on April 24, 1964. Photo credit: Garðar Pálsson

What makes Surtsey so fascinating to scientists is the way the island is slowly being colonized by plants and birds. The first vascular plants were found growing on the shores in the spring of 1965. In the next twenty years, some twenty species of plants were observed there, but only about half of the species survived in the nutrient-poor sandy soil. Once birds started arriving and nesting on the island, their droppings fertilized the soil and more plants began to survive. By 2008, there were 69 species of plant in Surtsey. Of these, mosses and lichens make up for most of the plant life, but new species continue to arrive on the island by way of the sea, wind and birds, at a typical rate of roughly 2–5 new species per year.

Surtsey is also teeming with animal life. Twelve species are now regularly found on the island including fulmar, guillemot, gull, and Atlantic puffins. Migrating birds also use Surtsey as a stopping place. Seals are seen basking on the northern shore. The presence of seal also being orcas to the island. Insect species on Surtsey ranges in the hundreds. There are slugs, spiders and beetles.

To allow the island’s biology to grow naturally without human intervention, very few people are allowed to land on the island. Once some young boys attempted to grow potatoes on the island, which were promptly dug up once discovered. Another time, improperly handled human defecation from researchers camping on the island resulted in a tomato plant taking root which was also destroyed.

Since 1965, Surtsey has been a nature reserve, and a UNESCO world heritage site.

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Photo credit: Erling Ólafsson


Photo credit: NASA


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Boulder on Surtsey island. Photo credit: Borgþór Magnússon

Sources: / / Wikipedia


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