Today marks the 40th anniversary of the volcanic eruption on Heimaey, the only inhabited island of the Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands) archipelago, which began unexpectedly during the night of January 23, 1973.
The Westman Islands. Photo: Páll Stefánsson/Iceland Review.
Almost all of the island’s around 5,500 inhabitants were evacuated by fishing ships. It’s considered a miracle that only one person died.
At first lava fountains extended from a 1,600-meter long fissure stretching from north to south on the eastern part of Heimaey, only a few meters from the town’s easternmost house.
The fissure gradually shrunk and the eruption became limited to an area where the now 200-meter high mountain Eldfell stands.
Before the eruption died down on July 3, 1973, around half of the town’s buildings had either been buried in lava or ash, or were destroyed in some other way.
Some people stayed on Heimaey during the eruption to help save whatever could be salvaged. Residents were concerned that the lava might destroy the harbor—on which the town’s livelihood depended.
To save the harbor, attempts were made to slow the approach of the lava by cooling it with seawater. After the experiment proved successful, efforts were bolstered with powerful pumping equipment.
It is estimated that 6.2 million tons of water were sprayed on the lava with 75 people being involved in the rescue operation at its peak, often putting their lives on the line.
More than two thirds of Heimaey inhabitants moved back in the months following the end of the eruption and were quick to clear out the ash and rebuild. However, some people never returned and today the island has a population of around 4,500.
In commemoration of the eruption, a ceremony, a torch parade and fireworks show will be held on Heimaey today. It will be followed by the more celebratory Goslokahátíð (‘End of Eruption Festival’), held annually during the first weekend of July.
Also on the occasion of the eruption’s 40th anniversary, the museum Eldheimar (‘Worlds of Fire’) is being built.
Eldheimar is centered on a house excavated out of a 15-meter thick layer of pumice as part of the ‘Pompei of the North’ project.
The house belonged to local inhabitant Gerður G. Sigurðardóttir, who recently was able to reenter her house for the first time since she left it in a hurry in the night of the eruption, finding everything the way she remembered it.
The progress of the project can be observed, although the formal opening of the museum isn’t scheduled until summer 2014.
Click here to read more about Gerður’s story.