Life on Surtsey

©Erling Ólaffson

My Research | Teacher Resources | Discussion Guide

My Research

In spring of 2014, my husband Gerry had the opportunity to visit Iceland, and since we would be celebrating our twentieth wedding anniversary that summer, he invited me to join him. I was a little hesitant at first, mostly because going meant that we’d have to leave our three kids behind, but also because I imagined a twentieth anniversary should be spent somewhere, well, warm! But Gerry was convincing, and in May he and I headed to the land of ice and fire.

Iceland is the most unusual and exhilarating place I have ever been. The landscape is rugged and beautiful. The people are welcoming and excited to share their homeland. Gerry and I spent most of our long weekend in and around the capital of Reykjavik, but on one day we were able to visit the island of Heimaey. Home to forty-five hundred Icelanders, Heimaey is the largest and only inhabited island in an archipelago off Iceland’s southwest coast. Our day of exploring Heimaey was interrupted by rain, so after a long visit at the Natural History Museum, we boarded a tour bus for a spin around the island. Along the southern coast, our bus driver pulled over to point out some of the nearby islands.

“Do you see that one?” he said. “The furthest one out?”

We squinted through the rain on the bus windows and nodded our heads.

“I stood on this road as a boy and watched its birth.”

Honestly? I lost my breath for a minute. I knew I’d just heard something special, something that was probably going to change my life.

I pulled out a notebook and began jotting down everything the bus driver said. He told us the story of the volcanic eruption that resulted in the formation of Surtsey, and of another eruption, about a decade later, that buried part of Heiamaey itself. Then he told us something that really piqued my curiosity: the island of Surtsey was off-limits to visitors. The only people allowed to set foot there were the Icelandic scientists studying her.

Back at home, I looked into Surtsey, its history, and its scientists. What a story! I knew readers would find as fascinating as I did, so I wrote to The Surtsey Research Society, which controls all scientific access to the island, and asked them if they would be open to me writing about their island and the mean and women who explored it each year. I explained that I’d need to see these men and women at work, interview them in the field, photograph them on Surtsey itself. To my complete shock, they wrote back asking if I was free the following July.

And that is how I came to spend a week on one of the world’s youngest islands.

In July 2015, I flew back to Reykjavík to meet Erling Ólafsson, and eight other scientists, and one government official. The Icelandic coast guard flew us to Surtsey in a helicopter (it took two trips to get us all there) and left us with gear and food supplies for a week. The next five days were some of the most incredible of my forty-seven years. As Surtsey’s scientists recorded changes on the island, I watched them work, asked questions, learned, recorded every answer, every sight, every sound, every feeling. I also took a lot of photographs. That material—the photos, the interviews, the notes and some additional interviews conducted by email after I returned—were the foundation for the book.

Teacher Resources

The Making of Life on Surtsey

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has prepared a Discussion Guide for Life on Surtsey, and you can access it by clicking on the “Discussion Guide” link at the top of this page.

The summer I went to Surtsey was a busy one for me, and I didn’t blog about my trip as much as I now wish I had. Nonetheless, students are welcome to visit my blog and check out what little I did write about the trip, and about the process of turning the materials I gathered into a book. Those posts can be found here.

Also, be sure to check out the Scientists in the Field website for news and updates related to this and all the Scientists in the Field books

Books with Related Themes

There are lots of great books for young people (and not-so-young people, too) that touch on the themes explored in Life on Surtsey. Here’s a short annotated list to get you started. Enjoy!

  • SURTSEY: THE NEWEST PLACE ON EARTH by Kathryn Lasky and Christopher G. Knight (Hyperion, 1992) — An earlier children’s book about Surtsey. It’s hard to find, but worth the search.
  • NIGHT OF THE PUFFLINGS, by Bruce McMillan (Houghton Mifflin, 1995)  — A picture book that shares Heimaey’s annual celebration of its puffins. (For more on this celebration, check out this article written for adults and published in Audubon magazine.)
  • ERUPTION! VOLCANOES AND THE SCIENCE OF SAVING LIVES, by Elizabeth Rusch and Tom Uhlman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) —This is an excellent read, and a great resource on volcanology.
  • WHEN THE EARTH SHAKES: EARTHQUAKES, VOLCANOES, and TSUNAMIS, by Simon Winchester (Viking, 2015) — Another excellent read that is chock full of fascinating information.
  • OLDER THAN DIRT: A WILD BUT TRUE HISTORY OF EARTH, by Don Brown and Mike Perfit (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017)  This graphic novel for young readers shares the explosive story of earth’s geology.
  • ISLAND: A STORY OF THE GALAPAGOS, by Jason Chin (Roaring Brook, 2012) — A fantastic picture book for older children that explores the life and times of another group of volcanic islands, the Galapagos Islands.
  • EARTH VERSE: HAIKU FROM THE GROUND UP, by Sally M. Walker (Candlewick, 2018) — Earth science in seventeen-syllable increments, including four volcano poems that will surely bring Surtsey to mind.
  • EARTHQUAKES, VOLCANOES, AND TSUNAMIS: PROJECTS AND PRINCIPLES FOR BEGINNING GEOLOGISTS, by Mattys Levy and Mario Salvadori (Chicago Review Press, 2009) — An in-depth resource for experiments, models and demonstrations to help budding scientists to study and understand earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis.
  • SURTSEY IN FOCUS, by Erling Olafsson and Lovisa Asbjornsdottir (Edda, 2014) — This adult book was created by two scientists profiled in Life on Surtsey, and is filled with the stunning images and historical information that all Surtsey enthusiasts will want to know; it can be purchased online in English or in Icelandic.
  • SURTSEY: ECOSYSTEMS FORMED, by Sturla Fridriksson (The Surtsey Research Society, 2005) — This adult book was written by one of the first scientists to visit Surtsey and, as such, is filled with historical images and details that all Surtsey enthusiasts will want to know; it can be purchased online in English.
Web Resources
  • The Surtsey Cam sits on a weather tower on Surtsey, taking one still photograph every twelve hours or so. The images are not archived for searching online, but if they were, and if you found the images for Wednesday, July 15, 2015, you’d find a funny picture of me posing with Erling, Matthías, Kristján, and Lovísa in the bright Surtsey sunshine. To this day, I’m bummed that I don’t have a copy of that photo!
  • This video link about Surtsey features several members of the 2015 expedition, including Lovísa, Borgþór, and Þórdís. You have to suffer through a few ads in order to see the full video twenty minute video, but trust me: it’s worth it!
  • Shhhhh! This is a secret!
  • The Icelandic entomologist I profile in Life on Surtsey, Erling Ólafsson, is a talented photographer, and he has dedicated himself to recording the flora and fauna of Surtsey, as well as the Icelandic mainland. You can see his photos online here.