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Iceland’s new island is an exclusive club – for scientists only

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Dubbed by his colleagues the “Duke of Surtsey,” Fridriksson is hardly seen on the island without a video camera slung around his neck, the better to make a record of a new nest of snow buntings or a patch of lime grass.

“When I saw this new island was being produced in the North Atlantic, I realized this was a small replica of Iceland,” he says. “The next spring I went to work on the island, discovered some seeds that had floated on the island, and caught one fly.”

A few seeds and a fly? It may sound laughable, but to the handful of scientists who’ve spent their lives following the evolution of this island, the numbers all fit into a very precise jigsaw puzzle of its development. “If you lose a species [on this island] it’s not a great loss, it’s not any news, but to find a species, that’s news,” Fridriksson told me as we walked the sandy eastern shore. “It’s an addition to the list, like hitting a gold mine. Sometimes it’s like being Robinson Crusoe or a pirate hunting for lost items.”

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The storybook nature of this place first captured plant ecologist Borgthór Magnússon when, as an 11-year-old, he witnessed from his home on the Icelandic mainland the eruption and emergence of the one-square-mile island. “To see this from the window of my home – the light, the smoke, the eruption, to hear the thunder – it really had an impact on me,” he recalls. “I never thought I’d step foot on the island someday.”

Mr. Magnússon is now one of the lead scientists on the island and has spent more than 25 summers on research expeditions to Surtsey, many of them working alongside his mentor, Fridriksson, studying plant colonization and secession.

“This opportunity to follow the colonization of a new site on earth right from its formation – from the time when it was a pile of ash until now, with many hundreds, even thousands of plant species and animals, to be able to follow that is very, very rare,” he says.

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