50 years ago, Surtsey Island came into being. Now, we’re drilling to find out how.

Nature reports on scientists with big drills in Iceland, trying to find out how it was that Surtsey Island came rising up from the ocean in the 1960s:

It will be the most detailed look ever at the guts of a newly born oceanic island. “Surtsey is our best bet at getting a detailed picture of this type of volcanic activity — how ocean islands start to form,” says Magnús Guðmundsson, a volcanologist at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik.

The results could help to explain how hydrothermal minerals strengthened the island’s rock, enabling it to withstand the pounding of the North Atlantic Ocean. Engineers might be able to use those secrets to produce stronger concrete.

And deep within Surtsey, scientists plan to learn more about how buried microbes munch on rock, extracting energy from minerals and hot fluids. “If we can address this, we will get a lot closer to answering what role the deep crustal biosphere plays in maintaining and shaping our present-day environment,” says Steffen Jørgensen, a geomicrobiologist at the University of Bergen in Norway.

“This is one of the most pristine environments on Earth,” says Marie Jackson, a geologist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and principal investigator for the US$1.4-million project, which is supported in part by the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program.

On 28 July, Iceland’s coast guard plans to begin moving 60 tonnes of drilling equipment and other supplies to Surtsey, over the course of some 100 helicopter flights. “This is the most complicated logistics operation I’ve taken part in,” says Guðmundsson. Strict environmental regulations require all waste to be removed from the island, including the sterilized seawater that functions as drilling fluid. Only 12 people will be allowed on Surtsey at any given time, even as drilling proceeds 24 hours a day. Others will stay on the neighbouring island of Heimæy, where a warehouse will temporarily be repurposed into a core-analysis lab.

After the new hole is drilled, engineers will lower five incubation chambers to different depths. These will remain in place for a year before they are retrieved so that researchers can determine what organisms colonize them. Monitoring what microbes move in, and how quickly, will offer scientists an unprecedented chance to study how the deep biosphere evolves in space and time, Marteinsson says.

Meanwhile, geologists and volcanologists on the team will be investigating the second, angled hole. “That will allow us to reconstruct the way subsurface layers are connected — what we call the structure of the volcano,” says Jocelyn McPhie, a geologist at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, Australia.

The drilling should reveal the earliest stages of the Surtsey eruption — before it broke the surface of the ocean in November 1963, catching the attention of the cook aboard a passing fishing vessel. In the mix of seawater and heat, hydrothermal minerals formed within the volcanic rock. This made the rock less porous and helped to buttress it against erosion from waves. The drill core should reveal how these minerals were created over time, Jackson says, and modern scientists might be able to take hints from this process to build stronger concrete for structures such as nuclear-waste containers.

Thus strengthened, Surtsey’s core is likely to remain an island for thousands of years, says Guðmundsson. That’s in stark contrast to many volcanic islands, such as one that appeared near Tonga in 2014 but has already eroded by 40%.

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