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Feature of the Week: The Old Man and the Island

Magazine

Feature of the Week: The Old Man and the Island

Only a handful of non-scientists each summer are permitted ashore Surtsey, one of the newest islands on earth—virtually untainted by human interference. Now 45 years since its appearance, IR’s Sara Blask was one of the lucky few chosen to accompany Sturla Fridriksson, the heralded Duke of Surtsey, and his band of dutiful scientists.

Published in the 2008 spring issue of Iceland Review – IR 46.01. Photos by Páll Stefánsson.

To sit on the rocky shore of Surtsey’s northernmost tip, where the waves collide and spray you with damp, salty mist, is to feel like you’ve reached the end of the earth. In the distance, the boxy rock pillars of the Westman Islands resemble lunar landings, like chess pieces shooting skyward from the belly of the ominous sea. Though it may only be 32 kilometers from the mainland, it feels like the middle of nowhere: desolate, deserted, but not devoid of life—or at least life of the non-human varieties.

Located at 63º18’ N - 20º36’W, Surtsey is the southernmost of the Westman Islands archipelago off Iceland’s south coast. Named after Surtur, the fire giant from Norse mythology, the island was created during a volcanic eruption that began November 14, 1963. The first person to witness the initial eruption was a chef aboard a fishing boat, but Dr. Sturla Fridriksson, now 86, was only a day behind. His first view was on November 15. He’d hired a plane to fly over it and has been back every summer since 1964.

Fridriksson’s hands are thick and tanned, weathered from years of penciling numbers into his fieldbook and pressing the record button on the video camera invariably slung around his neck. Though he has slowed in recent years, he is still steady on his feet as he parses through the loose lava terrain with ease and grace. “I’m the grand old man of Surtsey,” says Fridriksson, who begins every morning with a tablespoon of cod liver oil. “I’m twice as old as the hills here.”

If you’re going to be stuck on an island, this is the one. Here you can literally watch the grass grow, the seagulls mate, the killer whales breach and the storms roll in and out like wrecking balls. Surtsey was declared a nature preserve in 1965 while the eruption was still in progress. Because of its status, only a handful of scientists—and the occasional journalist—is permitted to visit each year, which means the island’s natural evolutionary processes have been able to unfold without any kind of human impact. No other island on the planet has been fully isolated for science, which launches Surtsey into a category of its own: quite possibly one of the best, if not the best, natural laboratories on earth.

Surtsey’s shores are too rough, rocky and jagged to allow a vessel of any size to sidle up alongshore except for a dinghy or a Zodiac, so Coast Guard helicopter is really your only chance of landing safely. Once you’re on the island, you best hope you haven’t left any provisions behind because there aren’t any on Surtsey itself. No running water, no septic system, no nothing, just a little, green pre-fab hut with a few bunk beds, a dartboard, an emergency radio and a solar panel to fire up the necessities.

Before Surtsey’s appearance Fridriksson had been studying how vegetation came to Iceland following the last Ice Age. “When I saw a new island was being produced in the North Atlantic, I realized this was a small replica of Iceland. I went in late April or May the next spring to work on the island, discovered some seeds that had f loated onto the island, and caught one fly.” The numbers—a few seeds and a fly—may sound measly to the uninitiated, but they’re significant to scientists who have devoted their lives to meticulously tracking the ecological development of this little island. “If you lose a species, it’s not a great loss, it’s not any news, but to find a species, that’s news. It’s an addition to the list, like hitting a goldmine,” says Fridriksson as we walk along the sandy eastern shore. “Sometimes it’s like being Robinson Crusoe or a pirate hunting for lost items. It’s always exciting to find a new plant.”

You can read the remainder of this article and view other photographs by Páll Stefánsson of Surtsey in the 2008 spring issue of Iceland Review – IR 46.01. Click here to read about the current issue and here to subscribe.

Click here to read the latest news about Surtsey, which has now been added to UNESCO's World Heritage list.