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Birth of an Island, Surtsey the new world

3 minute read - 28 Apr 2017

Surtsey, a volcanic island approximately 32 km from the south coast of Iceland. Surtsey is on the World Heritage list. Surtsey is a new island formed by volcanic eruptions that took place from 1963 to 1967.

It is all the more outstanding for having been protected since its birth, providing the world with a pristine natural laboratory. Free from human interference, Surtsey has been producing unique long-term information on the colonisation process of new land by plant and animal life.

Since they began studying the island in 1964, scientists have observed the arrival of seeds carried by ocean currents, the appearance of moulds, bacteria and fungi, followed in 1965 by the first vascular plant, of which there were 10 species by the end of the first decade. By 2004, they numbered 60 together with 75 bryophytes, 71 lichens and 24 fungi. Eighty-nine species of birds have been recorded on Surtsey, 57 of which breed elsewhere in Iceland. The 141 ha island is also home to 335 species of invertebrates.

The property includes the whole island and an adequate surrounding marine area, and thus all the areas that are essential for the long term conservation of the ecological processes on Surtsey. There is also a relatively small but functional marine buffer zone that is not part of the inscribed property. It is noted that part of the evolution of Surtsey is the process of coastal erosion which has already halved the area of the island and over time is predicted to remove another two thirds leaving only the most resistant core.

Forbidden world

Surtsey is a highly controlled, isolated environment and so threats are very limited. The purpose of strictly prohibiting visits to Surtsey is to ensure that colonisation by plants and animals, biotic succession and the shaping of geological formations will be as natural as possible and that human disruption will be minimised. It is prohibited to go ashore or dive by the island, to disturb the natural features, introduce organisms, minerals and soils or leave waste on the island. Nearby construction is also strictly controlled. The most significant management issue will be to retain the level of control and protection from human influence that has characterised the protective history of Surtsey. It is noted that, as an island ecosystem, there is the potential for human disturbance and pollution from a very wide area. Contingency planning, for example for oil spills, is required for the property and its wider surroundings. Given the lack of access a creative and positive approach to presenting the property will be required to ensure that visitors are able to appreciate, but not disturb, its values.

Dofri Hermansson

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