Visit to Surtsey 2023
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Visit to Surtsey 2023

Written by Erik Sturkell

This year in July, I got the opportunity to visit the tiny island called Surtsey once more. This Icelandic Island is less than 1.25 km2 in size and continuously getting smaller. It was my third visit to the island, and we were performing the same crustal deformation measurements as in my two previous visits to Surtsey. Halldór Geirsson and I went out to Surtsey in 2002, and Ásta Rut and I visited the island in 2013. The crustal studies comprise levelling and GPS measurements. In 1967, Eysteinn Tryggvason installed 42 benchmarks to following the vertical changes to the island. These points were set out at the time the island was about 2.66 km2 in size, based on data from Óskarsson et al. (2020). The sea erosion has consumed the land and benchmarks have been lost. In 2019, the area of Surtsey was down to 1.25 km2 (Óskarsson et al., 2020). 

In 1979, Jim Moore installed new benchmarks to bridge lost benchmarks to sand drift and in in 1982 he set down benchmarks in a loop through the crater Surtur I (figure 1). The leveling line was measured from 1967 to 1991 on irregular intervals. Frequently in the first years but with time with increasing intervals. From 1991, measurements have been carried out in 2002, 2013, and now in 2023. The levelling line was tied to an outside reference with measurements of the sea level. The observation on Surtsey was done simultaneous with reading of the tide gauge at Heimey. In 1992, one of the benchmarks in the line was measured with GPS (figure 2). 

The wind calmed down in the afternoons, which gave a window for levelling (figure 3) and drone flights. It was Gudmundur Valsson from the Icelandic geodetic service and Birgir Óskarsson from Icelandic Institute of Natural history who mapped the island with a drone producing high resulution images.

Ten persons went to Surtsey with help from the Icelandic rescue services (figure 4). Chiara, Guðmundur, Valdimar and I together with a lot of luggage (figure 5) flown from Reykjavik and was delivered to Surtsey. The helicopter then went to Heimey to pick up Birgir Ó, Birgir G, Jón Atli, Kristján, María, and Matthías. They had traveled by car to Heimey and left the cars for our return. We travelled back by boat to Heimey, picking up the cars. A rescue boat (figure 6) came to pick us up. They had two men swimming (figure 7) ashore and pulling the dingy to ferry luggage and people to and from the island. On the boat, we and our luggage in the dinghy were pulled by the rope to the boat. The breaking waves posted a challenge (figure 8) and the dingy flipped over a few times with luggage and people.

The group on the island had a long list of projects. Birgir G and Jón Atli from the cave association made scans of some of the caves, Kristján and María studied and measured the geothermal activity, Matthías studied the insects on the island, Guðmundur and Birgir Ó flew drones in different sizes. Valdimar, the park ranger, Chiara and I did the GPS measurements and levelling. We got a lot of help from the rest of the group as the wind was persistent and the clock was ticking. With their help, we managed to do all the levelling – thank you all!

Óskarsson, B.V., Jónasson, K., Valsson, G., and Belart, J.M.C. 2020. Erosion and sedimentation in Surtsey island quantified from new DEMs. Surtsey Research 14, 63–77.

PS! On the way to Iceland, I got an excellent view to the new volcanic eruption site at Litla Hrút on Rekjanes. I even flew with Icelandair’s new aircraft called ‘Fagradalsfjall’.

Photo: Erik Sturkell.
Photo: Erik Sturkell.

Featured front figure: Flying into Surtsey. All photos by Erik Sturkell.

Figure 1. The Surtur I, there the leveling line loops through. 
Figure 2. The GPS site SURS on the benchmark 621.
Figure 3.  Birgir Ó and Guðmundur helping Chiara and me with the leveling near the crater Surtur I. Foto Kristjan Jónasson.
Figure 4. The helicopter from the islandic rescue services helping us with transport to Surtsey.
Figure 5. Loading the helicopter in Reykjavík.
Figure 6. The rescue boat Thor from Heimey.
Figure 7. The brave rescue men swimming ashore with the rope to pull the dingy.
Figure 8. The braking waves at the northern shore of Surtsey.
Photo: Birgir V. Óskarsson. Erik, Guðmundur, María, Birgir G., Jón Atli, Birgir O., Kristján, Matthías, Chiara, and Valdimar.