The image above barely hints at the eruptive event that started here on 23 January,1973. Beginning on the night of the 21st there were several series of earthquakes south of the island, but being that such tremors are not uncommon in the region, there seemed no cause for alarm. The quakes were too small to be felt by island residents but were recorded at a seismology station closer to the mainland. Then, in the first hours of the the morning on the 23rd, the quakes gradually became shallower, more intense, and closer to the island’s only town of Vestmannaeyjar until at 1:55 a fissure opened up just east of the town, catching its citizens completely by surprise. The fissure quickly spread across the eastern side of the island running north-to-south and emitting lava fountains as high as 150 meters into the air. After a few hours the fissure began to close back up as activity concentrated in one area just north and east of the old volcano Helgafell. The new vent continued erupting tephra for the next few days until it had constructed for itself a cinder cone, which was locally being called Kirkjufell due to its proximity to the island’s old church, but was officially named Eldfell by the committee in charge of Icelandic placenames.As for the people of the island, they were very fortunate for the weather had caused poor conditions for fishing, the island’s main industry even to this day. The harbour which would have ordinarily been mostly vacant was full of boats able to begin the evacuation almost immediately after the eruption began. All of the island’s 5,300 citizens were transported off the island to safety, most taking with them only what they could quickly grab and carry. Lava from the new volcano flowed to the north and east while ash began falling on the northeastern part of the town. When it became apparent that the lava might enclose the harbour, an operation was mounted to divert the lava by spraying the leading edge of the flow with cold seawater. Heimæy was an important center for the Icelandic fishing industry, so it was vital to save the harbour as well as the town if at all possible. Already many structures had been lost to either the advancing lava, collapse of ash-laden rooftops or fire caused by volcanic bombs. As the crisis continued in March, a more precise system was employed involving networks of pipes laid directly across the lava to distribute the seawater across as much area as possible. Surprisingly, the coldness of the water within the pipes prevented the pipes from being melted by the lava. More pipes and more pumps were brought in and the operation continued until July, when no more new lava appeared to be flowing from Eldfell. During the entire event, only one life was lost..a man overcome by toxic fumes while breaking into a chemist/drug store.
After the eruption and much clean-up and rebuilding paid for by Icelandic taxpayers as well as international aid, Heimæy’s population eventually grew to almost its pre-eruption numbers. Hydrothermal power generating plants were built a few years later to take full advantage of the incredible heat still trapped underground. This provided the town with electricity and hot water for most households. The harbour was not only saved, but actually improved by the new lava, which acts as a waterbreak to protect the fishing fleet during storms. Today, Heimæy accounts for one third of Iceland’s total fishing industry.
In May of 2014, the Eldheimar (“Worlds of Fire”) museum was opened featuring as its main exhibit a single cottage excavated from beneath the ash and frozen lava. Inside, one can see a typical family household of 1973 frozen in time and intact as the evacuees had left it. This part of the old town is called by many “Iceland’s Pompeii.”I first learned of Heimæy and Eldfell when I was in my teens. There was a PBS documentary about volcanoes (as there often seemed to be back then) that featured a good ten-minute segment about the eruption. Before then, my only real impression of Iceland was “Iceland is green, and Greenland is ice” and that it was a stop-over for the Vikings before they eventually found Newfoundland….and The Sugarcubes, naturally. I had never heard nor imagined that Iceland was so full of volcanoes, nor that any volcanoes could behave so uniquely….Icelandishly? I had never heard of fissure eruptions nor mantle plumes in school, and to my knowledge, the only volcano to ever just appear out of nowhere was Paricutin in Mexico. Ever since then, Iceland has been always at or near the top of the list of places I would like to one day live.
Photo credits from this week’s challenge: