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.

Sara Blask
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
"Duke of Surtsey": Geneticist Sturla Fridriksson was one of the first to stake scientific claim to the freshly formed island.

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.

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.”

• • •

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.

“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.”

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.

• • •

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.”

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