Skip to content. | Skip to navigation

Birth of an island

Birth of an islandIt’s something we rarely get to see, but Icelandic fishermen were lucky enough to witness the birth of a brand new island. How does it happen? Find out below.

On 14 November 1963, the crew of an Icelandic fishing boat reported an explosion under the sea. At first they thought that it was a ship on fire but when the explosion was followed by smoke, steam and emissions of pumice stone they realized that they were witnessing a submarine eruption.

The discovery of an eruption came as no surprise to Icelandic geologists, as Iceland itself was formed by volcanic activity. But it was still astonishing to see smoke pouring from the sea, and this was exactly what everyone saw as they watched the island being formed. Lightning storms were frequent during these early stages, since the ash particles were electrically charged.

Rising from the ocean

On 15 November the first beginnings of the island were visible above the sea. Then, after seven days of cinder, smoke, pumice and lava bombs being ejected from the vent below the sea, the island emerged from the turbulent ocean. On 4 April 1964 a lava flow covered the ash and guaranteed the island’s survival. The new island was named Surtsey after the fire god Surtr from Norse mythology.

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 with a small plane. This allows the natural ecological succession of the island to proceed without outside interference. Without outside disturbance, the island has been home to 10 different plant species, and the first birds began nesting there three years after the initial eruption.

Back where it came from?

Unfortunately, the heavy seas around the island have been eroding the island ever since it appeared, and since the end of the eruption, almost half its original area has been lost. The island currently loses about 10,000 square meters of its surface area each year.

However, the island is unlikely to disappear entirely in the near future. The eroded area consisted mostly of loose volcanic material called tephra and is easily washed away by wind and waves. Most of the remaining area is capped by hard lava flows, which are much more resistant to erosion. While the island will undoubtedly get smaller yet, it will nonetheless probably persist for many centuries before being eroded away completely.

Recent activity

An area which has shown much volcanic activity and island forming is Metis Shoal, Tonga in the South Pacific. You can read about the history of this area and check out this blog from a yacht that sailed near recent activity in 2006.

Related links