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The Great Volcanoes: Heimaey, the Westman Islands

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The Great Volcanoes: Heimaey, the Westman Islands

Westman Isles Eruption Church Eldheimar

The volcano behind the church on Heimaey, the Westman Islands. Photo: Eldheimar.

The volcanos in Iceland can be beautiful and powerful. In the old days they could bring death and famine. Iceland is a rock full of active volcanoes. There is an eruption every two to three years or so.

Every schoolchild in Iceland knew that the volcano in the Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar), Helgafell, was passé. It had passed away 5,000 years ago. On Heimaey in Vestmannaeyjar was a fishing town of over 5,000 people.

One night in January 1973 it looked as if these 5,000 people were doomed when the dormant giant woke up and an eruption started a few hundred meters from town.

The Heimaey eruption started on January 23, 1973. A 1,600-meter long fissure opened up on the east side of the island, about 400 meters east of the outskirts of the town. During the first hours lava streamed up in illuminated fountains up to 150 meters high. The eruption lasted until June 26.

All in all 417 houses had been destroyed by the lava and the rest of the town was covered with millions of tons of ash.

Eruption in the Westman Isles Eldheimar

Five thousand people had to be evacuated from Heimaey when an eruption started in 1973. Photo: Eldheimar.

Kristján H. Kristjánsson lived on Heimaey and writes:

“When I looked out of the window I saw a volcanic eruption close to my home. It was a very dramatic and beautiful sight. At that time I was living on the island of Heimaey, in the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago, about 10 km off the south coast of Iceland.

First an eruption fissure, about 1,500 m long, opened seawards only about 200–300 meters from the easternmost part of the town. As usual for a fissure eruption the crater row developed into a single active crater in the middle of the rift. Later the new mountain was named Eldfell, which means 'Fire Mountain' in English.

The town was a prosperous fishing village. Because of a big storm the previous day, the whole of the fishing boat fleet of the town lay in harbor. I went with my parents down to the harbor where people were boarding the boats heading for the mainland of Iceland. Most of the 5,300 inhabitants went with the boats, hospital patients were taken by air and about 200-300 key personnel engaged in essential services stayed on the island. People had to abandon their homes without knowing whether they would ever see them again. Very few had managed to take anything with them and everybody faced a much unknown future.”

Many of the residents returned to the island after the eruption and Heimaey in the Vestmannaeyjar are still one of the main fishing towns in Iceland.

Photos courtesy of Eldheimar. Read our article about Eldheimar here.

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