Fifty Years Since Westman Islands Heimaey Eruption

1973, eldgosið í Heymaey, Vestmannaeyjum. Gosið í fullum gangi, gosefni þeytast upp úr gígnum á Eldfelli. Í forgunni eru tvö íbúðarhús.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the infamous 1973 Eldfell eruption.

The eruption took place on Heimaey, the largest and only inhabited island of the Westman Islands. Displacing an entire community, it made international headlines at the time, with coverage from the likes of National Geographic and other major publications.

In total, some 400 homes were destroyed during the eruption, leading to the evacuation of the island’s 5,300 residents. Despite the extensive damage to property throughout Heimaey, the evacuation was considered quick and effective, with nearly all of the island’s residents evacuated and housed by the end of the day, save a few who remained to carry out essential functions and aid in the salvage efforts.

In the days and weeks following the initial eruption, Westman islanders also had to band together to save the harbour. The lava flow from Eldfell threatened to close off the natural harbour, the town’s main source of income and connection to the mainland.

With the help of a pump from a dredging boat and a network of pipes throughout the island, seawater was sprayed across the advancing lave in order to slow its advance. The lava-cooling operation, the largest ever of its kind at the time, was largely successful. Despite the extensive damage to homes throughout the island, the harbour was saved. From the initial eruption in January, lava-cooling operations lasted until July.

Read more about the 1973 Eldfell eruption here.

Oil-Soaked Seabirds Found in Westman Islands

Oil-soaked birds

A number of oil-soaked seabirds have come ashore in the Westman Islands in recent days.  Most of the birds have been found in the harbour on Heimaey Island and just off the coast of the Stórhöfði peninsula on the far end of the island. The oil-soaked birds have been found around Heimaey since the beginning of the year and number in the dozens. Oil-soaked murres have also been found in Reynisfjara but it’s unclear if the cases are connected.

The crew of the Coast Guard TF-EIR helicopter and a representative of the Environment Agency of Iceland went out on a surveillance flight in search of the pollution source on Tuesday. The team surveyed all the islands in the Westman archipelago as well as Reynisfjara beach in South Iceland, but did not find the source.

The Environment Agency affirms that it will continue working with the Icelandic Coast Guard and EMSA, the European Maritime Safety Agency, to find out where the oil is coming from.

New Westman Islands Ferry Sets Sail Today

Herjólfur ferry

The old Herjólfur ferry will sail between the Westman Islands and mainland Iceland for the last time this afternoon, RÚV reports. The new Herjólfur, its replacement, will officially go into service this evening at 7.30pm, and will now be the main transportation to and from Heimaey island for its 4,301 residents as well as, of course, its many visitors.

Unexpected modifications needed to be made to the Heimaey harbour in order for the ship to be able to dock safely. The modifications have now been completed, and further improvements to the harbour are scheduled for September that could make the ferry’s trips faster and more efficient.

Record Amount of Passengers on Westman Islands Ferry

Heimaklettur

A record amount of passengers travelled with the ferry Herjólfur between mainland Iceland and Vestmannaeyjar (The Westman Islands) this past June. The total amount of passengers were 62,545, an increase of 5,400 people when compared to 2018. The last record was set in 2017 when 57,538 travelled with Herjólfur to the islands, RÚV reports.

Guðbjartur Ellert Jónsson, managing director of Herjólfur, stated that there have been more foreign travellers than normal. He stated that the summer has gone off to a good start. The good weather in South Iceland has played its part as well as the fact that Herjólfur sails at a different time than before, as well as the ferry taking more frequent trips.

Just over 4,300 people reside in Vestmannaeyjar, which is famed for its natural beauty in the North Atlantic. The Westman Islands are an archipelago just south of Iceland, rich with birdlife such as puffins. The picturesque islands are rich in history, and a short tour to the island has long been a popular pastime of Icelanders. Two beluga whales have also recently made Vestmannaeyjar their home in an open sea beluga whale sanctuary handled by Sea Life Trust.

Vestmannaeyjar residents have not felt the reduction in the number of travellers following the bankruptcy of WOW air. Íris Róbertsdóttir, Vestmannaeyjar’s mayor, says that the island is always popular in the summertime. She stated that she felt there was even an increase in the number of travellers heading out to the islands.

Laila Pétursdóttir, from local tour operator RibSafari, strikes a similar note as she’s been happy with summer so far. The weather plays its part, but she also feels a marked increase in foreign travellers between years.