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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Terra Incognita: Life on Surtsey: Iceland's Upstart Island by Loree Griffin Burns

Surtsey began with a big bang.

On November 14, 1963, the newest earth on Earth arrived with no warning. When ash and rock and cinder began to spew violently up from the sea, creating a plume of smoke eight times taller than the Empire State Building, all Iceland watched in mild surprise. By the morning of November 15, pilots flying over the area could see land where none had existed before.

Icelanders are no strangers to volcanic action. They know their own homeland and its small offshore islands are volcanic, and volcanic vents inland actually provide a source of thermal energy to their electric grid. A recent volcanic eruption created a spume of ash that grounded airline flights all over Europe in 2010. Still, a new and visibly growing island within sight was quite a dramatic event for the average Icelander, but for scientists around the world it was something else, a chance to observe how life takes root on the sort of volcanic land that Earth was in its early days, made especially observable because Surtsey's location on the Arctic Circle makes the acquisition of plant and animal life a relatively slow process, an accessible wrinkle in time--a wormhole--to Earth's distant past.

Enter Erling Olafsson and his fellow scientists, doing what science does--observe. By 1967 scientists were on Surtsey, their boot soles sometimes melting on the still-warm surface. They named the island after Surt, the Norse god of fire, and even in those early days saw would-be animal colonists.

"The first visitation of life on Surtsey occurred only two weeks after the island had pushed up through the waves," reads a 1965 newspaper article. "It was a seagull."

The first gulls surely found it too hot to trot on Surtsey, but as the land cooled, seabirds slowly flocked to a place with no predators as the perfect incubators for their eggs, and soon Olafsson, then a college student, delivered proof of animals reproducing on Surtsey:

"I saw one of the guillemots flying toward the cliff with a fish in its bill and disappearing somewhere in the cliffs."

There was only one way to find out. Erling had to investigate the cliff face forty feet above the North Atlantic Ocean. "I fetched my two fellow botanists--the cook was sunbathing--and two ropes. So down I went."

In one narrow crevice, about twenty feet above the ocean, Erling found more than eggs. He found two half-grown guillemot chicks!

It was indeed the seabirds, who find their food at sea, who were first seen raising chicks on Surtsey's barren rocks. And successive seabird colonies fertilized the island. Plants and their seeds washed up on the shores and hitchhiked on the birds and flotsam that drifted ashore, and in the following decades whole areas became green with grass and even wildflowers. And arriving on the ocean's debris and animals came small lifeforms, worms, insects, spiders and mites. And the study of those ever-widening circles of life became the lifework of Erling Olafsson and his colleagues over the decades as Surtsey, created in fire and ice, became a living island with its own cycle of life.

Earth's newest land is documented in Loree Griffin Burns' Life on Surtsey: Iceland's Upstart Island (Scientists in the Field Series) (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), an unique account of scientists in a one-of-a-kind field, the first ever to see what they have observed, illustrated amply with color photographs and boasting appendices on the Icelandic language, a glossary, a mediography of books, films, and websites, footnotes, and an index.

As an old dairy farmer friend once said about the value of land, "They aren't makin' any more of it." And for the most part that's true. But this old planet still has some volcanic life in it, and in this book readers get to be current witnesses to how new land is created by volcanic action, and more importantly, how life comes to transform a dead island, a chunk of lava in an icy sea, into a living ecology in which that new life nurtures and enables successive waves of newcomers to flourish. Life is tenacious and life is grand. A unique source for young vulcanologists and biologists, and an essential purchase for middle and high school libraries.

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