Surtsey – The Birth of the Modern World

(A repost, originally written by Carl, November 13, 2013. The post has been expanded from the original.)

Tomorrow, the fourteenth of November, will be the official birthday of Surtsey. In a way it was a triple birth. First of all it was the birth of the Island of Surtsey, it was also the birth of the term surtseyan eruption, but foremost it was in a way the birth of the modern world and the age of television.

Never before had the world’s population been able to watch proof that the world was a changing place born in fire and baptized in ice cold waters in a remote part of the world while staying at home, in one go it made a huge amount of people aware of plate tectonics, and the budding science of volcanology.

It was an archetypical moment for the television medium, one could say that the birth of television started with Surtsey and ended 6 years later with the moon landing. Both are epic moments from a time when we dared dream on a scale we will not see again as we move further into a Digital Dark Age of Introversy* and cat-images on Facebook.

At the same time Surtsey heralded the birth of modern volcanology and that is why Surtsey gave its name to underwater eruptions that form islands. It was far from the first island forming eruption, but it was at the same time THE island formation, not only for the general population, it was also the defining moment for volcanology, which at the time was forming as an independent science. Remember that Surtsey happened a year before Ian Carmichaels ground breaking petrological work on the Icelandic volcano of Thingmuli.

At the same time surprisingly little is known about the eruption. Yes, there are television clips and news photographs, and endless reporting on the event. But, from a modern scientific view there is almost nothing. One should though remember that there was almost no seismographic data available since the Icelandic network was in its infancy. On top of that the scientists back then hardly even knew what to look for, there was not even a clear cut protocol for what to look for. To set it into proportion, the Hekla network yields more data per minute than was recorded during the entire eruption of Surtsey, but we should also remember that without Surtsey we would most likely not have the luxury of today’s public network that the Icelandic Met Office let us partake from on a daily basis. In the end, that is the legacy of Surtsey; that we can sit in our living rooms and ponder and debate volcanoes around the globe, most likely driving scores of professional volcanologist insane while doing it…

Geological background

Map showing the Eastern Volcanic Zone as it goes out into the water. To the left is the MAR and Reykjanes Ridge. Where EVZ ends is where you will find Surtsey.

Up until roughly 12 000 years ago the EVZ stopped at a location close to Eyjafjallajökull. At that time the rift started to spread southwards and the Vestmannaeyjar islands was born. In time this opening faultline will take over the position entirely as the center for MAR-spread from the Reykjavik Ridge, but right now it is still in its formative stages.

All eruptions along this part of the EVZ are rifting eruptions, and no central volcanoes have yet formed, even though some argue that the Eldfell eruption on Heimaey heralded the formation of a proto central volcano, there is though no substantial evidence for that theory.

So far no volcano on the Vestmannaeyar Fissure Swarm has had a second eruption, a base requirement for a central volcano.

The Surtsey Eruption

View from the distance of the ash column. Something like this was observed from the trawler by the cook.

On the sixth of November the villagers of Kirkjubæjarklaustur noticed the onset of a weak earthquake swarm and the local seismograph registered the direction and the rough distance. Later analysis has determined the origin to be roughly within the area of the Surtsey eruption. The earthquake swarm ended or became too weak to register on the eighth of November.

On the twelfth of November a seismograph in Reykjavik recorded a ten hour long period of what later has been interpreted as harmonic tremor. At the same time a hydrological research ship had measured water temperatures in the area above the established baseline. In the town of Vík, 80 kilometers away the locals noticed the rotten egg smell of hydrogen sulphide (H2S), something that they knew indicated volcanic activity somewhere.

From all of this we know that sometime between the 6th up to the 12th the Surtsey eruption started. Closer than that we will never come due to the lack of hard data.

What we do know is that at 06.30 in the morning on the 14th of November 1963, the crew of the trawler Ísleifur II noticed a smell of sulfur in the air. Neither the cook nor the engine was to blame, and in the darkness the cause could not be found. At 07.30, the cook who had te look-out duty, saw a column of black smoke. The captain decided to go closer to investigate if it was a burning ship or if it was a volcanic eruption. As they got closer they saw that it was a column of ash, giving it away as a submarine eruption, which the captain reported to an astonished radio operator. The ship sailed as close as half a nautical mile to the eruption, but wisely retreated before the lava bombs began to rain down. The crew measured a sea temperature 2 degrees above normal. The next day, the cone broke the water surface and an island was born. Interesting, the sea now cooled down again, being insulated from the eruption by the pumice cone.

The eruption started at a depth of 130 meters, so we know that the eruption would initially not have been visible. During the first few days there were 3 distinct different eruptions along the NNE/SSW trending fissure line of the EVZ, but later in the day they formed into one single 10 kilometer high ash and steam column.

Over the next few days an island formed that was 500 meters long and 45 meters high. By November 20 it had reached 70 meters height. It was built by alternating layers of scoriae and ash and as such started to erode immediately – pumice began to float away, and the winter storms regularly broke through the crater walls. The sea would cover the magma, and the evaporating water formed continuous cauliflower clouds, occasionally even reaching the stratosphere, while ash fell like a dark rain. Airplanes reported long ash plumes – this was before the danger of ash to their engines was understood, and some of the trans-atlantic flight may have been operating in conditions which nowadays would be considered unsafe. When the sea entered the conduit, an explosion would follow with a mass of black tephra rushing up at speed of up to 100 m/s, and fanning out into plume-like jets looking like a puff of black feathers. But the eruption build the island faster than the sea could take it down. By February 1964, it had reached 174 meters height. The island had grown into such a size that the lava did not any longer interact with the water and the eruption therefore changed in nature. Now it was instead basaltic lava that was ejected in fire fountains and lava flows. This quickly covered the lose debris with a hardened shell, thusly saving the budding island from the waves. In February, the original crater stopped erupting and a new crater further west started up, called Surtur-II. Lava bombs were thrown as high as 2.5 km. From April 1964, the crater walls were water-proof and the eruption was now ‘dry’. This was the first time lave fountains formed, up to 100 meters tall. A lava lake formed, and lava flowed over the walls. Fast flows formed Pahoehoe lava (‘hellu’ in Iceland) and slow ones formed a’a lava (‘apal’).

This effusive phase of the eruption continued from the Surtsey vent up until 7 May 1965.

Legal issues

Island formation with the tell tale black and white column

During the first eruption of Surtsey, 3 French journalists landed on the island for fifteen minutes before being driven away by the volcano. As a joke they claimed the island for France. According to international law that would have made the island French since the eruption happened outside of the Icelandic 3-mile maritime zone. Iceland quickly moved to assert its rights to the island, and France never acknowledged its legal right to the island making Surtsey de facto Icelandic. The claim is though disputable since there is no legal limit to the time for claiming new land.

This might sound like legal nitpickery, but let us say that a couple of enterprising Somali pirates claimed one of the two newly born islands in the Jebel al-Zubair group, that would give Somalia legal claim to all navigable water in the world’s most heavily trafficked waters. The Devil quite literally lives in the details and there have been small scale wars fought over ephemeral islands in the Mediterranean.

Surtla, Syrtlingur and Jólnir

Classic aerial image of the birth of Surtsey

On the 28th of December of 1963 a second fissure eruption started 2.5 kilometers to the north east of Surtsey creating a 100 meter high seamount, it never reached the surface, but the eruption was still named Surtla since it was expected to break the surface.

At the same time as the first eruption on Surtsey dwindled down into an intermission a new fissure opened up 0.6 kilometers southwest of Surtsey. This eruption formed the island of Syrtlingur on the 28th of May 1965, the island quickly eroded and disappeared under the surface, and it then reappeared again on the 14th of June. In the beginning of October the same year this eruption ended and on the 24th of October the island was washed away by the waves to never appear again.

In December 1965 yet another eruption started 0.9 kilometers southwest of Surtsey. This weak eruption fought for 8 months to stay above the ocean surface until the eruption ended on the 8th of August 1966 and in October the waves had eroded away the 70 meter high island of Jólnir.

Second Surtsey eruption

Iconic aerial image of Surtsey

On the 19th of August 1966, a 200-meter long fissure formed cutting through the original Surtur crater. Lava started flowing at Surtsey again, at one point threatening the hut erected for the scientists. This second layer of lava further solidified the island and helped greatly with prolonging the life expectancy of Surtsey. This second eruption continued up until the 5th of June 1967. After that date there has been no eruption in or around Surtsey and it is fairly unlikely that a new eruption will happen from the same vents.

The future of Surtsey

Surtsey in 1975. Click on image for full resolution

Current aerial view of Surtsey

The island of Surtsey is doomed. The only question is how long the island will remain. Surtsey was once 2.5 square kilometers, but as of 2002 it was 1.4 square kilometers. The initial high erosion rate was mainly from loose material being washed away, and now that there is only harder material remaining the rate of erosion has diminished. Calculating the life expectancy has yielded different results, but it is clear that somewhere between 100 to 1 000 years from now the island will disappear under the surface. Most likely the island will fairly rapidly diminish until only a hardened stack of solidified basalt remains above the surface, and ultimately that will crumble and fall down into the ocean. Before that happens new islands will most likely have happened, most probably to the southwest of Surtsey as the EVZ spreads down in southwesterly direction where it will at some time merge directly with the Mid Atlantic Rift.

Biological and human impact on Surtsey

Beautiful image that is fairly rare. Sadly it does not exist in a larger format.

The island was quickly declared a living laboratory for biological settlement on newly formed land. Surtsey was therefore declared a natural reserve in 1965 and it was declared that only a select group of scientists would be able to land on the island. In 2008 Surtsey was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, further increasing its protection.

The first plant was reported in the spring of 1965, a sea rocket (Cakile arctica). It was followed by the sea sandwort (Hokenya peploides), sea lyme grass (Leymus arenarius) and oyster plant (Martensia maritima). The expectation was that lichens would be the first invaders, paving the way for moss, in turn followed by grass. These sequence is found in lava fields in Iceland. However, on Surtsey bacteria, moulds, algae and plants came first, and moss did not begin to grow until three years later. Lichen only followed 8 years after the eruption. The reason was that Surtsey quickly acquired sandy beaches, where the waves brought in organic material: seaweed and the remains of various organisms. Life started on the top end of these beaches rather than on the cooling lava, likely seeded from Heimaey, 18-km away, or the south coast of Iceland at 32 km. Away from the beach, by 1975 moss had become the dominant life form. Birds started nesting in 1970, with a black guillemot (Cepphus grylle) a fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis). A variety of sea birds nested, such as puffins, followed in 1996 by snow buntings.

Life on Surtsey, Loree Griffin Burns, 2017

In 2008 69 separate species of plant life had found its way to the island and there are also birds nesting on the island and the seals have inevitably found the northern gravel spit and annexed it as their breading ground and that in turn attracted a flock of Orcas feeding on the seals. In 2009 the island had 15 species of nesting birds on the island when a Golden Plover nested there. 53 different types of mosses were reported, 71 types of lichens and 89 bird species. About a quarter of the plant species are sporadic, meaning that the populations are too small to be self-supporting.

Humans could as usual not stay away from the island. During a raid on the island performed by a bunch of boys potatoes where planted. They were quickly dug up before they could cause any damage. In 2009 a scientist suffered a bout of bowel movement and defecated in a non-approved manner resulting in a tomato plant that later was destroyed. There is also a hut on the island housing the scientists during their visits to the island.

There is no permanent monitoring equipment on the island. The nearest equipment is a combined SIL/GPS-station on Heimaey. Even though the situation is better now than during the Surtsey eruption the area is generally under-monitored by Icelandic standards and could well do with a commemorative upgrade since there will be further eruptions in the Vestmannaeyar Volcanic Zone.


*The art of finding controversy whilst looking deep into ones navel, refusing to see any big picture, also including lack of imagination and being devoid of curiosity beyond the personal navel sphere.

234 thoughts on “Surtsey – The Birth of the Modern World

    • So that’s why we have taken to eating croissants for breakfast (on Saturdays only) the last few years…

  1. Oops…

    “They say a public works crew was trying to do a manual breach.”

    “In 1961, the developers of Boiling Spring Lakes happened upon a gushing spring concealed in a wooded ravine. Wishing to beautify the area, a 4-foot high brick wall was built to encompass this natural phenomenon. Almost before the masons had completed their work, the spring suddenly stopped running. Within a few hours, it burst out in a free full flow some 15 feet outside the wall.

    When the 3-foot wall enclosing the spring was built, the weight of the water in the enclosed area resulted in a back pressure against the spring as it moved to an easier release point (downstream). Over time the wall broke allowing the impounded water to flow (escape). With a lower water level in this area (less back pressure), the spring returned to its former location, and it boils today.”

    • And in all liklihood, immune from liability for their actions.

      • Kind of like the USFS or BLM “prescibed fire”season after the regular fire season.
        firefighters off for the season-check
        low humidity-check
        no aerial back up- helicopters or airtankers -check
        Ok. light it…

    • …so that’s where the core went…

      (Not likely, I don’t think there was enough fuel to melt down to the feed system for it)


    I finally found it, this is the livestream of kilauea on May 18, about the same time as there was a 10+ km high explosion from halemaumau and only an hour or so after new lava started erupting from the fissures. You can see how much bigger 17 was on this night compared to others from the days before, the lava fountain here was definitely over the 60 meter measurement USGS said later that day, and probably also over the 100 meter mark needed to qualify as a ‘high fountain’.

    Apparently fissure 17 was never connected to the dike because it never erupted pu’u o’o lava but I think the end of the 2018 dike at least made contact with the andesite magma body fissure 17 was fed from and must have heated it up a lot, the lava did become noticeably more fluid after this date with actual flowing red lava at the base of the cone rather than strombolian spattering on the surface of a thick lava flow.

    • It is pretty crazy to think that despite how ‘small’ we had been thinking this eruption was at this point, it was bigger than 1955 only 3 days later, 88 days overtaken in only 4… This eruption was also ultimately bigger than the official number for 1840 within the same time frame (28 days) when fissure 8 became active, and when the eruption finished fissure 8 it was bigger than any other eruption in hawaii within historical time, erupting just shy of 1 km3 of lava in 68 days, an average eruption of 170 m3/s.
      This significantly outperforms holuhraun which did 1.8 km3 of lava in 183 days, 97 m3/s or 57% of fissure 8 (this admittedly was very unexpected), tolbachik 1975 at 1.7 km3 of lava in 531 days, 37 m3/s or 22% of fissure 8, and mauna loa 1984 at 0.2 km3 of lava in 22 days, 105 m3/s or 62% of fissure 8. Most other lava flows in historical time are rather smaller than these, kilauea 1960 was only about half the size of mauna loa 1984 within about the same time frame and there isnt enough information on nyamuragiras eruptions to make these sort of measurements (although undoubtedly some of them are comparable). Most other eruptions are way too short to be comparable or are so long it is hard to measure (pu’u o’o and erta ale for example, examples of young and recently formed or still growing shield volcanoes with high volume but low eruption rates).
      Fissure 8 does fall short of mauna loa 1950 though, that eruption had an insane average eruption rate of 251 m3/s, or about 47% higher than the average of what fissure 8 was doing.

    • Impressive. It is hard to know exactly how high the fountain was because of a lack of a comparison. But it was around four times the big tree in front of it. 60 meters may be conservative. Do we have a picture from this location when the cone had build up? We know how high that was.

      • I found the house on Google Earth (or what I think was the house) and compared the height of the house with the height of fissure 17, the house is at something like 178 meters above sea level on the east side of pu’u honuaula, fissure 17 started on ground that was at 122 meters, so there is about 55 meters difference already. The cam also seems to be looking down very slightly but they move it around too much to be sure the angle is consistent. However the ocean seems to usually be around the top of the screen when they are as zoomed in as they were there (which I think might be max zoom). I would say though that given HVO were saying the fountain was 40 meters high before this day when the fountain was usually the same size as the tree, and then here it is about 3-4 times higher than the tree that could give a height of as much as 160 meters. A lot of people were also finding the estimated height by seeing how long it takes for the lava bombs to fall from the top of their arc and comparing to an acceleration graph, and that should be a lot more accurate and doesn’t require any landmarks.
        Given that a few million people saw the streams in sure someone was able to get the info on what kind of camera it was so we can find out how big the screen was and then find the angle they were looking at to find how big the tree is and then find the distance between the tree and the vent. I’m not really sure if this can be done but it would also help find the height of the cinder cone too, which I have been guessing at about 40 meters but there has been almost no information on it, even HVO has no pictures of fissure 17 on its own after it started…
        I wonder if all of the cones created in this eruption will get names, pu’u 8 definitely is with all the hype, but fissure 22 cone is actually taller (might even be about 60 meters tall above pre-eruption ground) and more visually distinct as well as being ‘volcano shaped’ and very close to the location of pohoiki road which will be rebuilt after this and so a lot of people will see it, a lot more than who will see fissure 8 easily unless the main fissures get protected in some way as a park. I seem to remember that way back in May probably on the 18 or 19, Ikaika did refer to fissure 17 with an actual Hawaiian name too, but I don’t remember what it was, or if he has the power to do that officially and he might have been giving it a nickname in case it got way bigger later on, which it sort of did. I’ll have to go and check later.

        • Actually I missed this one, its not really up close but it does show the cone well, and they actually did say that bits of spatter were being thrown up about 100 meters when they were taking this photo. This was at midday so about 10 hours after the high fountains in the livestream. The cone in their pic is about 25 meters tall a few hours after the stream ended and at later points a few days later it was about twice as tall as in the livestream above so the cones final height is about 50 meters and highest fountain in the livestream above is somewhere between 150 and 200 meters tall, which is pretty comparable to the initial opening stage of 1955 which was only about 200 meters away to the northeast and also erupted fairly evolved lava (although still basalt). It would have been awesome to see it from the highway, it would have been very visible there. Theres a video on youtube that shows exactly that but I cant find the original.

          Its not every day that you get to watch an andesitic spatter cone form especially in hawaii. There will probably be a lot of papers written about fissure 17 in the future, the first non-basaltic magma erupted from kilauea. It also gives a good view of what some of heklas lava fountains would look like as the are similar composition

    • Unlike the Weather Channels photo-bombed acting, that appears to be the real deal.

      CNN even had to do their own version of hyping it up. Stand in a ditch much?

      But, it’s not really anything new. I don’t have photos of it, but based on anecdotal info from a friend of mine that was downtown during one of our land-falling systems, Geraldo Rivera was spotted dragging a limb around trying to set up an exciting background for his live segment. Had he waited out the whole storm, he could have used the commercial AC unit that fell off a roof onto a car in that same parking lot for a background.

      • I saw several really dumb things this time, (as usual)
        one of them was one of our own that I used to have respect for,
        I am really disappointed.

      • I lost respect for “Vodka Bob” a long time ago. (Local anchor who used to report on DUI arrests with great disdain in his voice, who was later arrested for DUI while pushing shopping carts around with his car in a local parking lot)

        They put him on some sort of reporters probation and had him doing field reports for a while, but he’s back at his anchor desk now, still as self-righteous as ever.

        “Bob Solarski, longtime news anchor at WEAR-TV in the Mobile television market was arrested Wednesday night on drunken driving and other charges.

        According to Glenn Austin, spokesman for the Escambia County, Florida Sheriff’s Department, Solarski was arrested by deputies late Wednesday evening after allegedly hitting several parked cars at University Mall in Pensecola.”

        The only thing I give him Kudos for now, is that he still works at that station which is located in what is becoming the ultra high crime area of town. I don’t even drive through that area after dark anymore if I can avoid it. Too many brutally stupid things happen there.

  3. Carl, I am unsure whether the Westman Islands really started 12000 years ago.

    When I lived there for a few weeks, I noticed very old volcanoes in the Island. By old, I mean they weren’t formed in the Holocene, and were quite eroded. There is even a small caldera to the southeast of the island, well marked in the maps. So I think the process of the formation of the main island has been ongoing at least since a few more ten thousand years in the Pleistocene.

    And also small islands already existed around the main island, so the process of the formation of a new peninsula is already well under way. in the future, eruptions will extend towards the southwest, probably towards the tip of Reykjanes or somewhere around there.


    Quite a good view of piton de la fournaise, it is erupting again. This area seems to be a very common area for eruptions to happen, near piton kala pele cone which formed in 2015. This eruption is rather more vigorous than a lot of its earlier eruptions though, still nothing like fissure 8 but there is a sizable lava river rather than brief lava flow and static cone building like most eruptions before. I think it is getting to the point it was at in the 2000s when there were some rather impressive flows before 2007 peaked. Extra-caldera eruptions might be in the future.


    Heres a drone flight of the eruption from today, you can see how big pu’u 8 actually is, it is about as big as pu’u kaliu in the background, not as wide but probably about the same height.
    There have been a lot of interesting things that have been really well observed during this event – live viewed effusive caldera collapse, how large lava flows act on flat vs sloped ground, the 3 main ways cinder cones can be made, and of course what happens when an eruption happens in a residential area… The fact that basically the entire first 3 weeks of the eruption was recorded live really helps, as HVO seems to have payed less attention to that area compared to the vents later on.

    Regarding how long it might take to see an eruption after the first signs of new magma, it seems like deep quakes happen starting about 1 month or so before an eruption occurs on average, so any increase in deep quakes should be noted.
    This is also in addition to the fact there will be enough magma after 1 year to have an eruption anyway, a base supply of 5 m3/s (probably lower than the actual number) would give about 80 million m3 of new magma in 6 months, and a base supply of 10 m3/s would give as much as 0.16 km3 in only 6 months, enough to have an eruptive episode as big as 1959-1960, with another sizable LERZ eruption being a real possibility. Alternatively it could feed a large summit eruption – if that amount of magma erupted explosively through a lake it would be a VEI 4 easily and that is only after 6 months…
    Every month that an eruption doesnt happen makes the next eruption about 30 million m3 bigger, which means that in the 4.5 months since April 30 when pu’u stopped erupting, about 120 million m3 of magma has been fed into kilauea, at least 10% of this years eruption volume. It also means that in the 1.5 months since the main eruption ended on August 4, about 45 million m3 of magma has been fed into kilauea, and that by the end of this year about the same amount of magma as what was erupted in 1960 will have accumulated.about 1 km3 of magma left the summit then the reservoir is probably about half the size it was before and as such will probably only be able to take a small amount of new magma once it reaches equilibrium pressure. 1959 seems to have started after about 70 million m3 extra, and so half that sized chamber would give maybe only 35 million m3 extra capacity, making an eruption unlikely to be more than a month away from that point.

    I predict an 80% chance of an eruption before March 18 next year (6 months from now). I also predict a 99% chance of an eruption before September 18 next year, and finally in either case I predict it will be at the summit as a short and violent high fountaining event but soon followed by an east rift eruption again in lower puna, near kapoho cone. Lets see how well my predictions go… 😉

  6. Pingback: The fall of Surtsey | VolcanoCafe

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