Surtsey is a volcanic island off the southern coast of Iceland. Surtsey is the southernmost point of Iceland. It was formed in a volcanic eruption which began 130 metres (426 ft) below sea level, and reached the surface on 15 November 1963. The eruption lasted until 5 June 1967, when the island reached its maximum size of 2.7 sq km (1.0 sq mi). Since then, wind and wave erosion have caused the island to steadily diminish in size: as of 2002, its surface area was 1.4 sq km (0.54 sq mi).
The new island was named after Surtr, a fire jötunn or giant from Norse mythology. It was intensively studied by volcanologists during its eruption, and afterwards by botanists and biologists as life forms gradually colonised the originally barren island. The undersea vents that produced Surtsey are part of the Vestmannaeyjar (Westmann Isles) submarine volcanic system, part of the fissure of the sea floor called the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Vestmannaeyjar also produced the famous eruption of Eldfell on the island of Heimaey in 1973. The eruption that created Surtsey also created a few other small islands along this volcanic chain, such as Jólnir and other, unnamed peaks. Most of these eroded away fairly quickly.
Settlement Of Life
A classic site for the study of biocolonisation from founder populations that arrive from outside (allochthonous), Surtsey was declared a nature reserve in 1965 while the eruption was still in active progress. Today only a small number of scientists are permitted to land on Surtsey; the only way anyone else can see it closely is from a small plane. This allows the natural ecological succession for the island to proceed without outside interference. In 2008, UNESCO declared the island a World Heritage Site, in recognition of its great scientific value.
In the summer of 1965 the first vascular plant was found growing on the northern shore of Surtsey, mosses became visible in 1967 and lichens were first found on the Surtsey lava in 1970. Plant colonisation on Surtsey has been closely studied, the vascular plants in particular as they have been of far greater significance than mosses, lichens and fungus in the development of vegetation.
The expansion of bird life on the island has both relied on and helped to advance the spread of plant life. Birds use plants for nesting material, but also assist in the spreading of seeds, and fertilize the soil with their guano. Birds began nesting on Surtsey three years after the eruptions ended, with fulmar and guillemot the first species to set up home. Twelve species are now regularly found on the island.
Soon after the island's formation, seals were seen around the island. They soon began basking there, particularly on the northern spit, which grew as the waves eroded the island. Seals were found to be breeding on the island in 1983, and a group of up to 70 made the island their breeding spot. Grey seals are more common on the island than harbour seals, but both are now well established.
Insects arrived on Surtsey soon after its formation, and were first detected in 1964. The original arrivals were flying insects, carried to the island by winds and their own power. Some were believed to have been blown across from as far away as Mainland Europe. Later insect life arrived on floating driftwood, and both live animals and carcasses washed up on the island.
The only other significant human impact is a small prefabricated hut which is used by researchers while staying on the island. The hut includes a few bunk beds and a solar power source to drive an emergency radio and other key electronics. All visitors check themselves and belongings to ensure no seeds are accidentally introduced by humans to this ecosystem. It is believed that some young boys tried to introduce potatoes, which were promptly dug up once discovered. An improperly handled human defecation resulted in a tomato plant taking root which was also destroyed.