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Cooling the Lava: The Battle to Save Heimaey

Updated on February 18, 2014
The farmer Kirkjubaer from Heimaey, in the Vestmannaeyjar island chain in Iceland, woke up to a similar volcanic eruption and immediately packed his belongings, headed for mainland, and never returned home.
The farmer Kirkjubaer from Heimaey, in the Vestmannaeyjar island chain in Iceland, woke up to a similar volcanic eruption and immediately packed his belongings, headed for mainland, and never returned home. | Source
Cover of "The Control of Nature" by John McPhee
Cover of "The Control of Nature" by John McPhee | Source

Imagine soundly sleeping at home in your nice comfortable bed on a night just like any other. Now imagine suddenly being very slightly shaken awake. “What was that tender, gentle movement?” You might wonder. To your surprise, and your neighbors’, that little shake that may not have even awakened a baby was actually the ground opening up to reveal a previously hidden volcano. This is exactly what happened on the Kirkjubaer farm. On the cold early morning of January 23rd in 1973, on the small island of Heimaey, in the Vestmannaeyjar island chain in Iceland, an almost completely unexpected volcano opened up just outside of town. It was like a fountain that sprayed 2,000oF lava. That same night Kirkjubaer shot his cows and fled to mainland, with many other islanders. Pall Zophoniasson also felt the earthquake and saw what he described as a “house burning in the distance.” He called his neighbor Magnus Magnusson, a postal director, to ask him to investigate the disturbance. Much to their surprised, as Magnus and Pall excitedly came upon the burning house, they were confronted with the splashing, advancing lava. It was Iceland’s first volcano eruption in about 200 years. Iceland is located in the Northern Atlantic Ocean and is northwest of Europe. In the wee hours of that fateful morning, the town evacuated about 4,000 people, many, like the farmer of Kirkjubaer, had never left the island, nevertheless, many never returned. As many as one third of the population did not come back after they fled the volcano eruption that night; however, many “Newcomers” arrived not long after the volcano stopped erupting on July 3rd, 1973.

The Vestmannaeyjar archipelago in Iceland, highlighted in red in southern Iceland.
The Vestmannaeyjar archipelago in Iceland, highlighted in red in southern Iceland. | Source

The island of Heimaey is the only inhabited island of the Vestmannaeyjar island chain. It is home to Iceland’s primary financial industry, the fish market. The harbor at Heimaey is Iceland’s main source of income. Fish are caught for miles around Iceland and they are all weighed, bought, and shipped at Heimaey. The harbor at Heimaey is so important that “Proportionally, Heimaey was more valuable to Iceland than downtown New York is to us [Americans]” (97). Before the volcano Eldfell erupted, Heimaey had a population of 5,300 people; afterward, the population fell to 4,700 people, most were Newcomers.

Map of the archipelago of Vestmannaeyjar, with Heimaey clearly labeled in the north.
Map of the archipelago of Vestmannaeyjar, with Heimaey clearly labeled in the north. | Source

Although it may seem as if the volcano started without warning, there was some warning in the area before the volcano erupted. The major precursor was the seismic activity in the area on the day before the eruption. At the time, Iceland had only two seismographs. Both were located on the mainland of Iceland. The first was located with a schoolteacher and the second was with a farmer. On the day before the eruption, both seismographs were showing many small earthquakes in the area, unknowingly caused by the magma boiling to the surface. The presence of two seismographs in the area did not locate the epicenter of the earthquakes. Three seismographs are needed to triangulate the exact epicenter of an earthquake. Since only two were operable at the time, two possible epicenter locations were found. The first was northeast of Katla, a well known volcano that erupts at least twice every hundred years, and Hekla, another equally impressive volcano. Hekla is famous in ancient literature as “one of the two mouths of Hell” (114). The second location was Heimaey, an area not recently known for having active volcanoes. Looking at the earthquake evidence, one could guess which epicenter they would choose to have the most likelihood of erupting.

Eruption of Eldfell just outside of Heimaey.
Eruption of Eldfell just outside of Heimaey. | Source

It was Thorbjorn Sigurgeirsson the physicist’s idea to cool the lava with water. At first the thought was laughed at by nearly everyone who still remained in Heimaey. These people stayed behind to see what would happen to their increasingly endangered world, or try to protect the belongings and comforts of their home. Time passed. Almost a month passed. The volcano continued erupting, eating everything in its path. The tephra continued falling. Until one day the wind changed direction. Initially, the wind had blown the tephra and other debris spewing from the volcano away from the town. So, in the beginning, the only danger the town had was from the advancing lava. However, when the wind changed direction the tephra and other debris was rained down on Heimaey like some kind of Biblical story. It rained fire and ash. Houses caught fire, property was lost. The small group of people who stayed behind used fire trucks to distinguish the flames but, at the time, were constantly trying to put out one fire or another all over their community. In some places, the ash accumulated to as deep as twenty feet. By the time Eldfell stopped erupting in July about three million cubic yards fell on the town. At this time, the volcano continued to spew lava and tephra on the island of Heimaey.

"Houses buried by ash fall from the 1973 eruption of Eldfell, Iceland"
"Houses buried by ash fall from the 1973 eruption of Eldfell, Iceland" | Source

Then on February 5th, what is now known as Black Monday, after the volcano eruption had greatly increased, “the harbor was forsaken” (112) by the people of Heimaey. The lava was advancing toward the harbor. It was thought by most that the harbor would be filled in by the lava. All hope was lost for the small town of Heimaey and its once renowned harbor, the milk and honey of Iceland. The harbor was Iceland’s most treasured natural landscape. It was the reason Heimaey was still inhabited to this day. It was the life of the townspeople and fisherman. The notion that the harbor must be saved permeated everyone’s mind, but how? Slowly but surely Thorbjorn’s idea of using water to cool the lava began to be a real possibility.

"Heimaey harbour in June 2005, looking south"
"Heimaey harbour in June 2005, looking south" | Source

The once thought to be costly project of pumping water from the ocean to spray on the ever moving molten lava became a reality in February of 1973. At first, only a few stationary pumps were used against the lava because the idea was still not taken seriously. Later, as the notion began to work, fire trucks and boats were used to pump water on the red hot magma. Thorbjorn’s idea worked. As lava cooled it solidified and stopped advancing toward the harbor. For the time being, the harbor was safe.

Photos taken in 1973 by Knud Bach Madsen from Vanløse, Denmark, of the eruptions on Heimaey, Iceland.
Photos taken in 1973 by Knud Bach Madsen from Vanløse, Denmark, of the eruptions on Heimaey, Iceland. | Source

In addition to the lava and ash that devastated the area, carbon dioxide emissions from the volcano plagued some low lying areas and even got into some houses. The carbon dioxide was so deadly and concentrated that a person could instantly die from asphyxiation. Cigars were used as carbon dioxide monitors. If a person was smoking a cigar and it inexplicably went out, a carbon dioxide cloud was being entered. Luckily, during the eruption, the only casualties were cats because the carbon dioxide tended to linger closer to the surface of the Earth and did not rise as high as a person’s head. Still, it had the ability to stall cars and left some houses uninhabitable. After the eruption, another more serious casualty was reported from the carbon dioxide. A burglar trying to steal drugs from a pharmacy buried in ash and tephra was killed by asphyxiation. This was quite tragic.

Heimaey during Eldfell's eruption.  The steam is where the lava is being cooled by water.
Heimaey during Eldfell's eruption. The steam is where the lava is being cooled by water. | Source

Even more tragic was the sudden occurrence of a mammoth iceberg-like piece of the volcano that floated atop the lava. It was named Flakkarinn the Wanderer. It went this way and that way. It literally went with the flow. As fate would have it, the flow was toward the opening of the harbor. If this happened Flakkarinn the Wanderer would no longer wander, but become a hill that would fill the entire harbor. All involved knew Flakkarinn must be stopped. The harbor was once again in danger. The group of lava fighters came up with the idea to create a wall of hardened lava to stop Flakkarinn. Hoses pumped water on the wall in preparation for Flakkarinn’s arrival; however, hoses were not enough. The wall was not being built fast enough. The situation was desperate. Pipes, sent to help divert the lava, were now used to spray water on the lava. The idea that “with no harbor, there is no town” (140) filled everyone’s mind. The harbor must be saved. An area roughly “the size of Yankee Stadium” (140) was hardened to keep Flakkarinn from the harbor. Will it work? What if it doesn’t? These questions meant nothing. This idea had to work, or the past few months of spraying the lava with water would be in vain, or the harbor would be obliterated. As Flakkarinn continued on its course for the harbor, it hit the man made wall and broke into pieces. The harbor was once again safe.

Hoses spraying water to cool lava in Heimaey.
Hoses spraying water to cool lava in Heimaey. | Source

It was this event that may or may not have caused the next string of events in Heimaey; it will forever be a “What if?” question. When the harbor was saved from Flakkarinn, the man made wall may or may not have caused the lava flow to shift toward Heimaey. In either case, the lava shifted. At this time, Thorbjorn and Magnus were two of the main people in charge of organizing the war on Eldfell. When the flow started, Thorbjorn said to Magnus, “We cannot defend the town and the harbor at the same time” (129). Magnus ultimately decided the harbor was more valuable than the town. The town was left to the steadily progressing City Flow, as it later came to be called. In this one lava flow, the city was annihilated.

"The development of the coastline on Heimaey during the eruption of Eldfell 1973"
"The development of the coastline on Heimaey during the eruption of Eldfell 1973" | Source

On July 3, 1973, Thorbjorn, the man whose idea saved the harbor at Heimaey, pronounced the volcano dead. The war had ended with the silencing of Eldfell. Its monstrous, destructive lava, ash, and tephra would no longer wreak havoc on the community of Heimaey. With the lava gone, the townspeople and fisherman were expected to return, but what would they return to? In all, three hundred fifty houses were lost to the lava or collapsed by the weight of the tephra. This was most of the town. Many of these houses were more than two hundred years old. On the other hand, in the wake of the devastation to the town, the harbor “is [now] said to be the best harbor in the world” (173). In fact, “the cost of cooling the lava was one and a half million dollars” (175); however, “the lava brought more than thirty million dollars worth of heating to the town, and harbor improvements worth a great deal more”(175). The improvements brought Newcomers, tourists, and a national sales tax, to pay the lava fighters and fund future natural disasters. The town of Heimaey was never the same again. The now seven hundred foot tall Eldfell pervades the Heimaey background, like an uninvited obnoxious guest that never left or a sleeping giant no one wishes to wake again for fear of his anger and destruction. The giant now sleeps and the community has begun to rebuild itself with both the new and the old. In this case, human kind both won and lost. The rebuilding of Heimaey and fight against Eldfell is proof that humans will continue to fight to survive; but the fact that Eldfell unexpectedly erupted and destroyed most of the town is proof that nature is both unpredictable at times and has a wrath to be reckoned with.

Eldfell, dormant in 2007
Eldfell, dormant in 2007 | Source

Works Cited

McPhee, John. "The Control of Nature." 1989. ISBN: 0-374-12890-1

© 2014 morningstar18

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      Nate 10 months ago

      Great Summary! What an amazing story!