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Iceland Mag

Culture

A visit to the Surtsey Visitor Centre allows you to travel back in time

By Sara McMahon

  • The island Ever since Surtsey emerged from the sea in 1963, only a small number of scientists have been permitted to set foot on the island. Photo/Erling Ólafsson

The grand opening of the Surtsey Visitor Centre took place on Friday, November 14, on the 51st anniversary of the beginning of the eruption. The centre is now part of the fascinating Eldheimar museum in Heimaey, Westman Islands.

 

Ever since Surtsey emerged from the sea in 1963, only a small number of scientists have been permitted to set foot on the island. This has allowed the island’s natural ecological succession to proceed without outside interference. Among the subjects scientists study on the island are bio colonisation, geothermal development, tuff formation and marine erosion.
Surtsey was declared a nature reserve while the eruption was still in progress. In 2008 UNESCO declared the island a World Heritage Site.

Since the general public is not allowed to visit the island itself, those interested in Surtsey and its geology have to make do with the Surtsey Visitor Centre in Heimaey. The centre opened in 2010 and was first located near the harbour, a short walking distance from where the ferry Herjólfur moors. It has now become part of the exhibition Pompei of the North which centres around the 1973 eruption in Heimaey island.

According to Þórdís Vilhelmína Bragadóttir, advisor for the Department of Natural Studies which runs the centre, the centre’s most popular item is an interactive time-machine which allows visitors to examine the island’s evolution by jumping back and forth in time.
“By using the time machine, people can learn more about Surtsey and see how the island has evolved from 1963 and up until today. It also shows what scientists predict it will look like in the future,” Þórdís explains.

 

It rose from the sea

Surtsey Island is the southernmost point of Iceland. The island was formed in a volcanic eruption which began 130 metres below sea level and reached the surface on November 14th 1963. Fishermen on board the trawler Ísleifur II were the first to notice the smoke rising from the sea about eighteen kilometres southwest of Heimaey-Island. Thinking the smoke came from a boat on fire, the men decided to further investigate. However, instead of a burning boat they were met with explosive eruptions from the sea, giving off black columns of ash.

The eruption continued until June 5th 1967 and brought four islands, Surtsey, Surtla, Syrtingur and Jólnir into existence. The three smaller islands quickly eroded away once the eruption ended, leaving only Surtsey standing.
To begin with the island measured 2.7 square kilometres, but after years of sea and wind erosion it has steadily diminished in size. By 2006 its surface area had already reduced by half.

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