Video | Iceland

Top of the World: The Making of an Island

On November 14, 1963, the island of Surtsey was born—one of the newest islands in the world, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and an area off-limits to human interference. Learn more about Iceland’s claim to modern-day geological fame in this video.

Video Transcript

November 14, 1963: the fishing vessel Ísleifur II was sailing off Iceland's coast. After being rocked by unusual wave action, the ship's crew noticed dark smoke rising from the surface of the frigid sea.

The ship raced toward the smoke, worried another ship was in distress, but what they discovered was another kind of fire at sea—the smoky plume of an emerging volcano.

Welcome to the island of Surtsey, located in the Westman Archipelago, just thirty-two kilometres off the southern coast of mainland Iceland. This chunk of dark black rock is mostly barren, covered in a thick layer of volcanic ash. Yet it's been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

That's because what's really interesting about Surtsey is its dramatic and recent beginnings. The island is much younger than many people living on Earth. In fact, Surtsey was born on that fateful day in 1963.

What the crew of Ísleifur II witnessed that day was the beginning of massive volcanic eruptions from the sea, belching out columns of black ash into the atmosphere and forming the tip of what became Surtsey.

After just a couple of days, the island of Surtsey was over 500 metres long and forty-five metres high, but the island continued to grow as the eruption continued unabated. By April 1965, the ash had blocked the seawater around the growing comb, allowing lava flows to become more prominent, without deterrence.

In 1967, after the eruption stopped, Surtsey stood 171 metres above sea level. After several decades of erosion by wind and water, today it boasts a height of 154 metres and a 1.4 kilometre surface area. As islands go, Surtsey may not last very long. It's constantly threatened by wind and wave erosion. If it continues at its current rate, scientists predict Surtsey may be underwater by the year 2100.

Due to the island's UNESCO status, Surtsey is off-limits to visitors. For scientists, Surtsey is a living laboratory. They can see in real time how plants and animals naturally colonize a new area without human interference.

Since it was formed by a volcano, it's no surprise that Surtsey is a site of geothermal activity. On the western part of the island, a temperature of 99.6 degrees Celsius has been recorded just ten to twenty centimetres below the surface.

But what's really surprising is just how many plants and animals have colonized the island in its short lifespan. Over sixty-five plants and several different bird species have all taken to the island. Excrement from birds—including eiders, puffins, and ravens—acts as a fertilizer and a nutrient source for new plants.

Scientists continue to look at the plant succession and geologic formation on Surtsey. And while few will ever visit, one of the world's newest islands offers to all a glimpse into geological time in our time.