Surtsey was added to the prestigous UNESCO’s World Heritage list the 7th of July 2008
The eruption of the island of Surtsey most likely began several hours, even days, before anyone was aware of volcanic activity in the area. The first signs above the sea that an eruption was occurring were seen by the crew of a fishing boat, Ísleifi II from Vestmannaeyjar, early on the morning of November 14, 1963. They had laid their fishing lines 7 km. west of Geirfuglaskeri, which at that time was the southern most island in the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago and consequently the southern most point of Iceland. The eruption stopped several times but only for short periods.
The first stop was on December 1, 1963 and lasted for 4 hours. There was no sign of smoke nor steam and it was just as if there had never been an eruption. The seagulls that glided above and around the island landed there that day and were probably the first living things that touched the island. At the end of March and the beginning of April 1964 the island of Surtsey had grown to about one square kilometer.
On April 4th lava began to run from the crater similar to eruptions on land. Streams of lava exploded 50 to 100 meters into the air and the glowing lava streamed down into the sea.
In this way rock formations of rock were created from the thin layers of lava. The lava ran out over the edge of the crater and also through long tunnels into the ocean. These tunnels of streaming lava made the many caves that exist on Surtsey today.
The lava continued to spew forth except for several small periods of time when it stopped, until of the end the eruption on June 5, 1967. Speculation about the future of the island began as soon as it rose from beneath the sea. While Surtsey was still only composed of pumice and ash, it was thought that the island would quickly disappear. The hope that the island could withstand the onslaught of the wind and waves heightened when lava began to flow from the crater. At the end of the eruption the island was approximately 2.8 square km.
Now, 35 years later, it has eroded to about half that size. Vegetation was found on the island quite soon after the eruption, the first plant being discovered there in 1965.
By 1990, 20 different types of plants had been found. Birds were also quick to make the island their home and at the present time there are 5 different species nesting there. Surtsey is a protected area and travel to the island is only allowed for scientific reasons and with special permission. Scientists have been able to gather invaluable information in this unusual natural “science laboratory” that Surtsey has become and will remain.
Description of Surtsey made by the Iceland Ministry of Education, Science and Culture in 2001
The area is an island where the natural evolutionary processes have been able to act without any kind of human impact. The geological and subsequent geomorphologic processes are constantly active. The immigration of plants and animals to the new land area has been continuously studied and documented by scientists.
Surtsey, the southernmost of the Vestmannaeyjar Islands, was formed during a volcanic eruption lasting from November 1963 to June 1967. The eruption, which is the largest submarine eruption near Iceland in historic time, started 130 metres below the surface of the sea. Only two months later, an island had been formed which reached 174 metres above sea level. During the Surtsey eruption, two other small islands were formed. Syrtingur (70 m elev. and 0. 1 5 km’) and J61nir (70 m elev. and 0. 3 kM2) . These have subsequently been eroded by the sea and are no longer above sea level. When the Surtsey eruption ceased in June 1967, the volcano had produced 1.1 km3 of material, 70 % of which was tuff and 30% lava. Only 9% was above sea level and formed a 2.7kml large island. The Surtsey eruption is one of the best documented submarine eruptions of all time. Because of erosion, the island has now been reduced to 1.5kM2. Outstanding examples can be seen on Surtsey of how fast unconsolidated volcanic ash becomes transformed into tuffitic rock. Geologists have also shown that the sea breaks down the lava more quickly than the indurated tuff.
Ever since its formation, Surtsey has been an outstanding laboratory for research into the immigration of life into a “desert landscape” at this latitude. Studies show that the immigration of animals and plants is an extremely slow process and it will take time for the species to was above sea level and formed a 2.7kM2 large island. The Surtsey eruption is one of the best documented submarine eruptions of all time. Because of erosion, the island has now been reduced to l.5kM2. Outstanding examples can be seen on Surtsey of how fast unconsolidated volcanic ash becomes transformed into tuffitic rock. Geologists have also shown that the sea breaks down the lava more quickly than the indurated tuff.
Ever since its formation, Surtsey has been an outstanding laboratory for research into the immigration of life into a “desert landscape” at this latitude. Studies show that the immigration of animals and plants is an extremely slow process and it will take time for the species to become stabilised and find a harmonious balance. The species which have immigrated derive from other Vestmannaeyjar islands to the north, formed in the same manner as Surtsey. The number of species on Surtsey constitutes, nevertheless, only a fraction of the total species diversity of the entire group of islands.
All the lower-ranking animal – and plant species that have found niches on the island are also common on nearby islands. Previously, it was widely held that lichens were among the first life forms on new areas of land. Therefore, it was a surprise to discover that lichen was not to be found on the lavas of the island before 1970. Moss was found as early as 1967, and 18 different species had been recorded by 1970. The first vascular plants migrated here through seeds transported by ocean currents. In 1993, 34 different vascular plants were recorded on Surtsey. This is 7.7% of the total vascular flora of Iceland. As early as 1966, 23 species of birds were recorded on Surtsey and in 1970, the first nesting took place on the new island (Black guillemot. Cepphus grylle). Several species have started to nest in recent years. In 1986, five pairs of fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis) were recorded, and the number has since increased to 120. The Great black-backed gull (Larus marinus) first nested in 1974 and in 1990, 35 nesting pairs were recorded. A total of 160 pairs of Herring gulls (Larus argentatus), Lesser black-backed gulls (Larus fuscus) and Glaucous gulls (Larus hyperboreus) are among the other species that nested on Surtsey in 1990.
The degree to which the island remains undisturbed is outstanding. Apart from a small helicopter platform and a cabin for research work, the island is undisturbed. There is no tourism.