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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.

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“In the beginning, we knew almost every plant as individuals,” says Magnússon, referring to his initial research. “They were like [being acquainted with] persons ... there were so few, but as time passed, this could not be done anymore.”

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The first plants appeared on the island’s northern shore in 1965. By 1985, more than 20 plant species had been found, and now the number is 69, compared with around 490 species on mainland Iceland. This year’s most significant discovery was a raven’s nest, the 14th bird species to be found here since the island’s creation.

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Other than an abandoned lighthouse foundation on Surtsey’s 492-foot summit, the only structure on the island is a small, prefab hut under constant stress from the fierce winds perpetually battering the island. It’s kitted out with a few bunk beds, a dartboard, an emergency radio, and a solar panel to fire up the essentials.

Here the scientists, including a Mount St. Helen’s expert from the University of Washington, sit around an oval table discussing the day’s discoveries, including a meadow foxtail and an oak fern. Across the table sits entomologist Erling Ólafsson, busy preparing his newly found flies for storage. He keeps to himself except to look up and smile when Fridriksson teases him between sips of coffee: “During the day [Ólafsson] finds flies, and in the evening he makes friends with them.”

Though Fridriksson has since passed the research baton along to his former assistants, he still seems to be the center of this scientific frat house, and his well-worn Adidas hiking boots are a giveaway that the man still knows his way around Surtsey.

These days he’s often found in the hut cooking for the crew – sometimes puffin, sometimes his signature rice pudding with blood sausage and raisins. During my visit, his lusty laugh filled the room as his friends and former researchers around the table passed a plate of pungent shark meat with a box of matchsticks (used as toothpicks) and recounted an unlikely find in 1977.

“We came across some strange plants growing in the sand around the hut and we were excited because it was unusual to find plants so lush and so many,” Magnússon recalls. “So we began digging in the sand and soon figured out what they were: potatoes. It was obvious they had not been washed ashore by the sea, they had been planted deliberately in the sand.”

It turns out some renegade boys from the nearby Westman Islands had rowed up to Surtsey earlier in the spring and planted some leftover potatoes from their personal food cache. And that’s nothing to say of the tomato plants discovered even before the potatoes had arrived. Magnússon surmises that someone who’d been eating tomatoes took a restroom break where he shouldn’t have. “There must’ve been a lot of fertilizer around the plant,” he laughs.

But at the time, the jokes weren’t funny, and the tomatoes and potatoes were dug up immediately. The scientists have strict rules against not carrying any seeds to Surtsey – the idea behind no human interference is to witness colonization and secession as naturally as possible.

Magnússon expects the number of species to increase over the next 20 to 30 years, but as the island continues to erode, the flora and fauna variation will probably start to decline.

Heavy seas have been gradually eroding the shores since Surtsey first appeared. Its two brother isles, which appeared during the same eruption, have already vanished. Scientists estimate the island loses about 2.5 acres per year and is less than half the size it once was.

Even though, from a geological perspective, the big event in Surtsey’s history is often considered to be the eruption itself, for the scientists intimate with the place, it’s the island’s cycle of change that defines its importance.

“It’s been over 30 years since I first came to Surtsey and in these 30 years I’ve witnessed such great changes that I never would’ve been able to forecast or tell the extent of them or what they would be. Half of [the island] is gone and so much land that you worked on 25 years ago, it’s all ocean now. To witness the lava rock being broken down so easily by the sea, it is very impressive,” Magnússon says. “You really see the forces of nature.”