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Iceland’s new island is an exclusive club – for scientists only

A UN World Heritage site that no tourist will ever set foot on, Iceland’s Surtsey is a fresh geologic creation reserved for research.

By Sara Blaskcontributor / October 24, 2008

Fresh specimen: Not millions of years old, but just 45, Surtsey Island is an evolutionary model for scientists who have been there since its creation.

Sara Blask


Surtsey Island, Iceland 

Buckled in? Check. Life jacket secure? Check. Noise-reduction headphones on? Check. No seeds in any of your belongings? Check. You sure? Yes. And up lifts the Icelandic Coast Guard’s Super Puma helicopter ferrying me to Iceland’s jealously guarded natural gem, Surtsey Island.

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Though it was named this summer to the UNESCO World Heritage List – joining other natural heritage sites like the Great Barrier Reef, the Galapágos and Yellowstone National Park – no tourist will ever get to visit.

Located 20 miles off Iceland’s southern coast, Surtsey – named after Surtur, the fire giant of Norse mythology – was created in a volcanic eruption that began not millions of years ago, but on Nov. 14, 1963. It was a fresh specimen of geological and biological evolution. And even as the eruption was still in progress in 1965, the Icelandic government designated the island a nature reserve – for scientists only; a place they could document the evolution rock by rock, blade by blade, bird by bird.

Geneticist Sturla Fridriksson has been here from the beginning, and my feet had barely hit the island before its white-maned icon was chuckling to me that he’s “twice as old as these hills.... Here in Iceland we talk about the trolls getting very old. And the trolls are as old as the mountains.”

That first dark November morning after the eruption started, Dr. Fridriksson hired a plane to fly over the new landmass exploding violently from the ocean floor. Now 87, he’s rarely missed a summer expedition to the island since.

Dubbed by his colleagues the “Duke of Surtsey,” Fridriksson is hardly seen on the island without a video camera slung around his neck, the better to make a record of a new nest of snow buntings or a patch of lime grass.

“When I saw this new island was being produced in the North Atlantic, I realized this was a small replica of Iceland,” he says. “The next spring I went to work on the island, discovered some seeds that had floated on the island, and caught one fly.”

A few seeds and a fly? It may sound laughable, but to the handful of scientists who’ve spent their lives following the evolution of this island, the numbers all fit into a very precise jigsaw puzzle of its development. “If you lose a species [on this island] it’s not a great loss, it’s not any news, but to find a species, that’s news,” Fridriksson told me as we walked the sandy eastern shore. “It’s an addition to the list, like hitting a gold mine. Sometimes it’s like being Robinson Crusoe or a pirate hunting for lost items.”

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The storybook nature of this place first captured plant ecologist Borgthór Magnússon when, as an 11-year-old, he witnessed from his home on the Icelandic mainland the eruption and emergence of the one-square-mile island. “To see this from the window of my home – the light, the smoke, the eruption, to hear the thunder – it really had an impact on me,” he recalls. “I never thought I’d step foot on the island someday.”

Mr. Magnússon is now one of the lead scientists on the island and has spent more than 25 summers on research expeditions to Surtsey, many of them working alongside his mentor, Fridriksson, studying plant colonization and secession.

“This opportunity to follow the colonization of a new site on earth right from its formation – from the time when it was a pile of ash until now, with many hundreds, even thousands of plant species and animals, to be able to follow that is very, very rare,” he says.