Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Westmann Island Eruption of 1973

Imagine that you are a sixteen year old boy and that your girlfriends parent‘s are very strict. They will not allow the two of you any alone time so you set up a clandestine meeting after her parents have fallen asleep, sneaking into her room which is on the second floor of her house. So far all is good. Now imagine having your bliss interrupted by her father, yelling at the top of his lungs that everyone has to get out as there is a catastrophe – a volcanic eruption has begun in the neighbourhood. Not so good at all, choice between death by girlfriend’s father or by volcano.

When the eruption in Heimaey began at 2 am one night in January 1973, most of the island’s 5300 inhabitants were fast asleep. Like in any community some, like unlucky lover boy, had yet to close their eyes and this group experienced a different sort of rude awakening than those who rose from slumber. Not many realised immediately what was going on and the individual stories vary from people believing it to be some sort of fire to thinking the Cold War had reached their island via an atom bomb. Keep in mind that at the time nuclear warfare was all the buzz and that there had not been an eruption on the island since 3000 BC (sort of makes you wonder about real estate prices in Napoli).

The Westman Islands are an archipelago consisting of about 15 small islands located off Iceland’s south coast. All were formed by submarine volcanic eruptions, originating from a 30-km long fissure in the seabed. The largest of these islands is Heimaey and it is also the only one which is inhabited. Today the population is just below 4500 people meaning that it is still about 1000 persons shy of the population when evacuated in 1973. Some things remain unchanged however, fishing and hunting (I am not going to tell you what they hunt for fear of offending readers) remain the backbone of Heimaey’s economy. It is a wonderful place, beautiful from every angle and the society very laid back and unpretentious. The people living there do not need a heart or leaf shaped design floating on top of their coffee to enjoy it.

When Eldfell emerged from a level farmer’s field, basically in the farm’s backyard and a mere 300 metres from the edge of the town itself, everyone was caught unaware. Earthquakes had been experienced for a couple of days but these were not powerful and the largest only registered at 2,7 on the Richter Scale. Some confusion as to where the epicentres were located did not help as a faulty earthquake meter (one of three needed to pinpoint such a location) provided two options and the other seemed more likely as chances have it, this location was that of a new power plant whose reservoir had recently been impounded. However there had been one huge sign almost impossible to overlook, namely the birth of Surtsey ten years previously – an island formed by the largest underwater eruption in historical times just off the coast of Heimaey (20 km). This eruption lasted four years and by the time it was over Surtsey rose 170 meters above sea level. The accompanying photo shows the island at the tender age of 16 days - clearly a neighbourhood where anything can occur.

The Heimay eruption immediately required that the population be evacuated from the island as the town was in such close proximity. Luckily for everyone, a bad weather forecast meant that the fishing fleet of 70 ships and trawlers were all in harbour and could be used to take the 5000 persons that evacuated to safety, although not comfortably by any standard. The remaining population, all men in their prime, stayed behind, living offshore on these same boats when not in town attempting to salvage what could be saved. At the time keeping a dog was illegal (Iceland has had its fair share of ridiculous bans) so shepherding them to safety did not pose a problem, while the numerous cats people kept as pets had in most part to be left behind. These were seen milling around by rescue workers while they attempted to save buildings and residences which were in danger of either catching fire from the rain of embers or collapsing under the mounds of ash piling on top of them. One by one these animals died, overcome by toxic fumes present in basements and around the cooling lava. Sheep had been transported off the island by planes the first night (women and children on fishing boats, sheep on business class - go figure) while cattle was brought down to the harbour and slaughtered. I do not know how this came to be but find it really sad somehow and the photo of the cows making their final steps with the blaze in the background says it all. Some horses grazing or resting in the fields close to where the eruption began became crazed and ran into the fire-spewing fissure. Animals are usually very hard hit when natural disasters occurr.

The volcano initially spouted out lava at the rate of 100 cubic meters per second (3500 cubic ft/s) and permanently removed 30% of all the island’s houses from the face of the earth, submerging them underneath molten rock. Of the 1350 residences/homes on the island before the eruption 417 disappeared beneath lava and deep ash layers and a similar number sustained awful damage. The lava flow also threatened to devastate the island’s only hope for re-inhabitation – the harbour. However, in a massive effort that I do not have space to give justice, locals and rescue team members from the mainland managed to divert the lava flow by spraying cold seawater onto it and causing it to cool and harden, thus forcing it to change its course when it was just 100 meters shy of closing the harbour entrance. The lava-tongue that remained actually ended up providing the perfect breaker, making the harbour just perfect.

At the end of the eruption in early July 1973 Heimaey had enlarged in area by 20%, having been spewed with 200 million tons, or 240 million cubic meters, of lava and ash. It had also acquired a new volcano, Eldfell, 225 meters high. In addition the community, aided by engineers and scientists, received a district heating system and power plant fuelled by the heat contained within the new lava field. It is an amazing fact that the insides of thick lava flows retain temperatures of many hundred degrees for years and years as rock has very low thermal conductivity. This hidden energy was harnessed by percolating water into the lava field, collecting the steam that rose in its place, providing hot water to heat the town’s homes. It obviously helped that the lava field is basically at the edge of town, on top of the part that used to be. You can still see the occasional house sticking out of the jagged edges, an eerie reminder of the homes and belongings contained within the rock.

Only one man died during the eruption, poisoned by fumes while attempting to find something to take his mind off things in the abandoned local drugstore. While researching for by book Ashes to Dust which takes place in Heimaey and relates to the eruption I spoke to a lot of locals who had experienced these events first hand. Many mentioned how lucky it was that no one died. Finding this strange as one man did lose his life I made a point of drawing attention to this discrepancy and always received the same reply: Oh him. He doesn’t count – he was an alcoholic. So there you have it, alcoholics should be removed from any reasonable death toll numbers.

So in case you were wondering I had better tell you how the adventures of teenage lover boy from the beginning of this post ended. His girlfriend left him stranded as she had to go down and join her family so he was left to his own devices regarding what to do. After several agonising minutes imagining being left behind to deal with the volcano on his own, he decided to face the father instead. Knowing that his decent down the stairs would be awkward at least he grabbed a book by our Nobel laureate, Halldór Laxness, from a nearby bookshelf, in the hope he would look intellectual and carried it (cover facing father) to meet his destiny. The book did no magic and a second, human eruption occurred but given the circumstances it did not last long and the simmering father let the boy join the family down to the harbour. Today these two former teenagers are a happily married couple.

Oh, by the way, we have yet another eruption which started last night. This one is completely different from the mild and pretty tourist eruption that has just ended and was the subject of my post 2 weeks ago. The new eruption originates from underneath a glacier and involves humongous ash plumes and extreme flooding. We actually only had one day between the two which is unusual, even for Iceland. About 800 people have been evacuated from their homes, the major east bound highway lying across the south coast has been cut in two and bridges and other structures in the area are threatened. Even all flights in northern Norway have been cancelled due to an approaching cloud of ash which also threathens to put a halt to all air traffic in western Europe tomorrow morning. Let's hope not though, Iceland has caused enough havoc there already.

On the bright side Katla has yet to blow.

Yrsa - Wednesday


  1. Fascinating post and I admire the way you've come full circle from book to history to book. Are dogs still outlawed?

  2. Yrsa - I don't know which part of the story is the most interesting.

    Regarding Naples: I don't think the threat of Vesuvius erupting is the reason people are discouraged from touring Naples. Roberto Saviano's GOMORRAH, about the Camorra (the organized crime group in Naples) netted him the Italian gangster version of a fatwa. The BBC referred to him as a dead man walking so he is in hiding. GOMORRAH is more frightening than Stephen King.

    The simple facts regarding the men who sprayed sea water on the lava to save the harbor is evocative of true heroism and commitment to community. It doesn't need any more words to define the human need to battle against nature's worst to save what is most precious, home.

    The pictures of the homes nearly buried under ash is the down side of the beautiful pictures of glowing lava pouring out like a ribbon on velvet. I think volcano and think Pompeii. I know geologically there are differences but it doesn't seem that there is going to be anything left to awe people 2000 years after the fact in the aftermath of the Iceland volcano. How terrifying and heartbreaking it must be for the people who lived there to see what has become of their neighborhood.

    As you know, Britain and much of the eastern side of the continent have canceled all air traffic.

    Now, back to the really important questions. Did the happily married couple share their story with their children as they became teenagers? Have other teenage lover boys risked death by girlfriend's father in this second generation?

  3. Having lived through the whole Mount St. Helen's eruption, the huge dust cloud always interests us in the Pacific NW. Though Iceland is also getting lava flow, the part that seems to go on for years is the dust and ash levels in the air and on the ground.

  4. To KK: Thanks for the lovely comment - regarding the dogs they are now allowed in most communities but this was a long time coming. One thing that is almost as stupid is now gaining popularity, i.e. the proposed ban on cats going outdoors. Politicians never cease to amaze.

    Hi Beth - many of the people that left that night could not bear to move back precisely for the reason you mention, they could not bear to have to look upon the wreckage that they once called home.

    Regarding teenage lover boy and his girlfriend (now wife) they do have children and I think the story is one they share with them - they probably did not have to repeat an near miss death by father as they must be all too aware of what teenagers get up to and have kept a better lookout that the original father did.

    To Pat: I clearly remember the Mount St. HElen eruption, it is one hard to forget. Our current eruption is nowhere near as spectacular, all you see is the huge, huge plumes decorated with lightning bolts and then the muddy glacier melt from the flooding. I really hope the ash will not be as bad as you describe, years of dust seem like a horrible scenario.

  5. hey these pictures were very good for my geography homework. this article is very interesting and i find the whole unit of work at school on volcanoes very interesting 2.
    However i would have liked a bit more information on what happened to the boy at his girlfriends house. thanx again for the pictures, Cathy xx

  6. What a phenomenal post, and what great pictures. But I'm with Cathy xx in wanting some minute-by-minute info on what went down in that house.

  7. I just started to read Ashes to Dust, and as always, decided to lean about the islands and the eruption. Thrilled to find this article and the pictures. Angela from Sydney Australia