The Land of Fire and Ice | Iceland's "Upstart Island"

Author and scientist Loree Griffin Burns reports on a trip to Surtsey with a group of Icelandic scientists.

Listen to Loree Griffin Burns reveal the story behind Life on Surtsey: Iceland's Upstart Island, courtesy of

In the summer of 2015 author and scientist Loree Griffin Burns traveled with a research team to the island of Surtsey off the coast of Iceland. The island, which was named for the Icelandic god of fire, Surtur, was born of an undersea volcanic eruption, and was, by all accounts, an unexpected arrival. While Iceland “has more volcanoes than any other country in the world,” prior to Surtsey’s birth in 1963, the last island-size eruption off its coast was 6,000 years ago. After nearly four years of eruptions, the island eventually stopped spewing fire and ash—and growing. Soon after it was declared a national preserve, offering Icelandic scientists exclusive rights to visit—and a rare opportunity to explore and study this unique environment. In Life on Surtsey, (HMH, 2017; Gr 6 Up) Burns shares what she learned on that trip to this “Upstart Island.” I’m curious: How were you able to join this research team? My husband had the opportunity to travel to Iceland with a business organization he belongs to, and he invited me to join him. I was hesitant at first, because leaving our three kids behind while traveling out of the country is always uncomfortable for me…and also a logistical nightmare. But our 20th wedding anniversary was near the dates of the trip, and Gerry eventually won me over to the idea. I AM SO GLAD HE DID. Iceland is unlike any other country I’ve visited, visually stunning and varied and unusual. While on that trip, our group traveled to the island of Heimaey, and on that tour, our bus driver pulled to the side of the road and pointed out to sea. “You see that island? The furthest one out?” We all squinted through rain-soaked bus windows to see the rock he was talking about. “That’s Surtsey. I stood on this very spot when I was a boy, and I watched as it was born.” I knew the moment he said it that I’d just heard something incredibly special. I took out a notebook and started writing everything he said after that, including the fact that the island was closed to all but the Icelandic scientists studying its transformation from a seething hunk of lava to an island that supported living, breathing organisms. As soon as I was home, I began to research Surtsey’s story and was further mesmerized. Eventually I wrote to the Surtsey Research Society, the organization that controls access to the island as a research site, and pitched the idea of writing a “Scientists in the Field” book about the science being conducted on the island. I was thrilled when they sent back an invitation to join a team the following summer. So, about a year after he dragged me to Iceland for our anniversary, I left Gerry behind with the kids and the dog and all the homelife logistics, flew to Reykjavík, and then on to Surtsey. So tell us, what opportunities does a newborn island offer scientists? What specifically are they looking for? A newborn island offers scientists an opportunity to watch a transformation. As Surtsey cooled, life-forms of all sorts arrived. People, of course, but also seeds, plants, insects, and birds. Sometimes these life-forms arrived under their own power (birds and insects can fly in) and other times they arrived on the wind or by the sea. These arrivals changed the island almost immediately, adding nutrients to the volcanic sand covering its surface (by way of their waste, or their eventual decomposition, or both). Sand with these added nutrients became a better substrate for new arriving seeds and plants, which increased the ability of these later-arriving life-forms to survive. And the process, called succession, kept going from there. Surtsey represented a rare opportunity to watch succession up close on a brand new, completely empty-of-life volcanic island. What discoveries has Surtsey yielded?  Have there been surprises? More than I can possibly tell you about here! My book barely touches on the variety of research being carried out on Surtsey, including the study of its volcanic eruptions, its geology, its soil, it’s climate, its degradation, and so on. Instead, I focused on the arrival of life-forms and the creation of new ecosystems. That aspect of Surtsey’s life is fascinating, but it’s really just the tip of the important research being conducted on the island each year.

Erling Ólafsson (l.) and Matthías Svavar Alfreðsson (r.) on Surtsey  Photo by Loree Griffin Burns

What will scientists be looking for in the future? Scientists like Erling Ólafsson and Matthías Svavar Alfreðsson, the stars of my book, will continue to study the arrival and departure of insect and other species on the island for as long as they’re able. They’ll be able to pair this information with climate factors, weather conditions, geologic studies, and so on, and in the process, learn more about how ecosystems grow and thrive, and also, perhaps, how they die out. You note in the book that the island is shrinking. How long is it expected to be around? The island is expected to survive for hundreds of years, but certainly not thousands. While on the island, it’s hard to imagine it being chipped away by wind and sea so quickly. On the other hand, one look at the aerial overlay of maps from 1964 and 2014 (shown in the book) demonstrates Surtsey is, in fact, shrinking. It’s an unusual thing, to study the change that happens during the lifespan of an island, between its eruption out of the sea and the day it slips back under for good.  But that is exactly the opportunity that Surtsey represents. The dedication and teamwork of the eight scientists you traveled with was particularly interesting, especially that of the two entomologists you highlight: Erling Ólafsson and Matthías Svavar Alfreðsson. When I arrived, I wasn’t yet sure if I’d focus on one scientist and his/her work, or the expedition as a whole, or something in between. It didn’t take long to focus on Erling and Matthías. For one thing, I’m partial to insects, and they’re both entomologists. For another, their mutual passion for their work, and respect for one another, was so clear, and a joy to watch; it’s obvious the island is a special place for both of them. And then there were the ways Erling’s professional life, from the age of 20 to the age of 68 (his birthday was last month), so thoroughly intertwined with the island’s life (Surtsey turns 54 on November 14, the book's pub date). I decided to focus my story there, on the weaving of those passions and lives. But to be honest, I could have focused my lens on any one of the scientists on the 2015 expedition team; their work and their connections to Surtsey are, to a person, compelling. With so little time each year on the island, it appears everyone arrives prepared to use every minute of their time week there.   Yes! Every scientist on the team—there were eight when I went—wishes for longer spans of time on the island. There is so very much to study, and so little time to do it. It sounds like the accommodations were rustic. Ten of us lived in a two-room research hut. They gave me special guest accommodations in the private room with a single bunk, and the rest of the team slept in bunked beds in the main room, which served also as our kitchen and dining area. The island has no running water, no bathrooms, and no electricity. We brought in all our water and food for the week, burying the perishables in the sand to keep it cool. For washing up, we boiled rainwater collected from the roof. And there was a generator, which allowed us all to charge equipment, computers, cell phones and, in my case, recorder and camera batteries! Will you be going back? Oh, dear. I would love to. But reporters and storytellers are allowed only if the 10 bunks aren’t already spoken for by scientists, Icelandic and otherwise. I feel like going a second time would steal this incredible opportunity from someone who hasn’t been to Surtsey yet. That said, if the team ever needed a writer/reporter and invited me back to carry out some specific task, I would be there in a heartbeat. An interesting tidbit: there is a guest log in the research hut that everyone who has visited the island is asked to sign. As I added my entry, I thumbed back through the pages and was happy to see a entry for my colleagues Kathryn Lasky and Christopher Knight, who visited to research their 1992 book Surtsey: The Newest Place on Earth (Hyperion). Three cheers for the intrepid creators of books for children!

Photo by Loree Griffin Burns

  Listen to Loree Griffin Burns reveal the story behind Life on Surtsey: Iceland's Upstart Island, courtesy of  
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Sarah Albee

I had the opportunity to see this book in galleys and it is AMAZING. Loved this interview and hearing more about the back story. Thanks Daryl and Loree!

Posted : Nov 14, 2017 06:42

Loree Griffin Burns

Thank you, Sarah. This means a lot coming from you!

Posted : Nov 14, 2017 06:42




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