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Iceland's Island of Fire

The birth of the volcanic island of Surtsey in November 1963 Dateline: April 26, 2001.

(Click on each stamp to enlarge it)

    On November 15, 1963, an island was born - it was a dramatic, fire-and-brimstone birth that erupted from the icy sea off the south coast of Iceland, among the Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands) at 63° 4' N, 20° 3' W.

    The earth's outer crust is constantly shifting, and combined with the pressure of molten rock underneath, a fissure estimated to have been about 1,500 feet (460 meters) long started to break open on the undersea volcano known as Sutur in about May 1963. Initially, the release of gases and molten rock seems to have been fairly slow, and it took six months for the buildup of lava to reach the surface of the sea. The violence of the volcano then increased greatly, and ash, cinders, and pumice were blown up to 1,000 feet (305 meters) into the air for about 4 months. The column of ash reached 30,000 feet for a time, and could be seen clearly from Reykjavķk.

    By April 1964, the violence of the intial eruption had subsided, and a steady flow of lava over the next year (as seen on the next stamp below) built up an island with an area of just over one square mile (3 square kilometers). By the time all volcanic activity ceased in 1967, the highest point on the island was 560 feet (171 meters) above sea level.

The volcanic island of Surtsey in April 1964

    Due to the relative ease of access to Surtsey, scientists were able to study the eruptions and related tornadoes, waterspouts, hail, and lightning in great detail. It very quickly became apparent that Surtsey would also be a superb place to study the evolution of a new land, both it terms of landform and life forms, and it was designated a nature reserve in 1965. Studies in a wide range of disciplines continue to this day.

    The three postage stamps used to illustrate this article were issued in 1965 - for philatelists, they are Scott #s 372-374, Facit #s 429-431.

Surtsey Links

After the Eruption
Jorgen S. Aabech has posted an excellent series of articles on various aspects of the return of life to the island, in English and Norwegian.

Surtsey Topography
A series of 3-D digital elevation models (DEM), compiled from Airborne Topographic Mapper (ATM) scanning laser altimeter surveys conducted by NASA in 1998.

From Volcano World, maps and diagrams that show some of the details of Surtsey's life.

The volcanic island of Surtsey in September 1964

The Lesson of Surtsey
This short article by Edgar Andrews argues that rapid geomorphological development such as that seen at Surtsey can throw off calculations of when the earth was created.

Sandwort, Seabirds, and Surtsey
This article by Carla Helfferich, for the Alaska Science Forum, looks at the arrival of life on the island.

A brief look at the arrival of insects, plants and birds on the island.

The 1973 eruption of the Eldfell volcano on this island near Surtsey became famous as the largest human effort ever exerted to control volcanic activity.

Books about Surtsey

  • Surtsey: The Newest Place on Earth by Kathryn Lasky (Hyperin, 1992)
  • Surtsey: evolution of life on a volcanic island By Sturla Frišriksson (Butterworth, 1975)
  • Surtsey, the New Island in the North Atlantic by Siguršur Žórarinsson (Almenna Bokafelagid, 1964)

    Graphics are from stamps in the collection of Murray Lundberg.