Feature of the Week: The Epic Begins


Feature of the Week: The Epic Begins

Surtsey is one of the planet’s newest and best-preserved islands you’ll probably never get to see. So if you’re expecting a cruise ship – or even a dinghy – to drop you off anytime soon for a little Arctic vacation, you’d better keep dreaming: only scientists are allowed to step ashore.

Published in the 2007 summer issue of Iceland Review – IR 45.02. By Sara Blask, photo by Daniel Bergmann.

Named after Surtur, the fire giant from Norse mythology, Surtsey was created during a volcanic eruption in 1963 that lasted 44 months. Not only have cold-weather data crunchers and science intelligentsia been able to revel in its unadulterated landscape, but the island has also become a source of national pride. In fact, so much so that Icelandic authorities have nominated Surtsey to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, currently 830 strong (150 of which are natural phenomena). If Surtsey is accepted by the UNESCO committee, it will join the ranks of Thingvellir National Park, currently the country’s only World Heritage Site, where Iceland’s national parliament was established in 930 AD. A decision is expected next summer.

Located at 63˚18’ N - 20˚36’ W, Surtsey is the southernmost of the Westman Islands, off Iceland’s south coast. Heavy seas around the island have gradually been eroding its shores since its first appearance. Its two brethren that also appeared during the same eruption have already disappeared. The island, approximately 1.4 square kilometers at present, has lost almost half its original area but it’s unlikely the island will disappear entirely, or at least anytime soon. What remains consists primarily of hard lava flows less susceptible to erosion than the loose tephra that formed its perimeter.

To view some explosive footage from Surtsey’s eruption and learn more about the island, check out Surtsey – Genesis, a new interactive exhibition at the Culture House that opened this spring and will be on display for at least a year. It’ll surely whet the appetite for a visit to the island some day. The only problem: you may have to swim ashore or hitch a ride aboard a whale, and pray the Coast Guard doesn’t pick you up on the way over.