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Iceland: a dance on the volcano

For 5000 years Vestmannaeyjar was a quiet group of islands in the North Atlantic. Then, on the 14th of November 1963, a new volcano erupted out of the sea in a violent column of ash and fire, creating the youngest island in the world. Since then the earth is violent here, has already smothered a district and thousands of life dreams beneath glowing lava. And the island people continue to fight for their homeland against the power of nature.

The main island of Heimaey today: Lava still forms walls around the city
Picture by T. Micke
p>The first people to discover the rare fire display over the main island of Heimaey were seamen, who were returning home from a nighttime excursion in Icelandic waters on the 23rd of January: The earth was broken open along a length of 1.6 kilometres in the northeastern part of the island. Molten magma was spurting metres high out of the frightening crevice into the night sky and plunging the outskirts of the fishing town and its 5000 souls into a devilish light. But the alarm bells were not sent ringing until a drowsy island inhabitant alerted the firemen and thought: "something is burning in our neighbours house." An enormous, viscous river of lava began shortly thereafter to roll over the first houses; it was raining ashes and hot chips of stone into the harbour.

Still during the same night, all of the inhabitants of Heimaey were evacuated with the help of the fishing fleet, primarily because there was a fear of gas explosions in the inhabited area. The fleeing people took only what was necessary, as nobody reckoned that the new volcanic crater that was later named "Eldfell" ("Fire mountain") would bury half of the town under an 18 metre thick, 250 million cubic metre blanket of black lava crust during the five-month long eruption.

Temporarily placed with friends and family, or with completely foreign helpers on the north lying Icelandic mainland, the confused island inhabitants had to watch on regional television how the unstoppable river of lava flattened a building to the ground like a giant, red-hot bulldozer. The end of the catastrophe was not in sight.

The volcano Eldfell still spirts fire today on Vestmannaeyjar
Picture by T. Micke

Bjarni Sighuatsson, who once agin lives on the Westmann islands with his wife, was back then a 25-year-old in the rescue team that tried to save whatever was possible in the first few weeks after the volcanic eruption on Heimaey: "We had to seal thousands of windows in the still untouched western part of the town with steel plates, because with every eruption Eldfell fired molten stones in high arches over the town, which went straight through the panes of glass and set the interior on fire. Even the roofs had to be dug free again, so that they did not collapse through the weight of the metre-high ashes." Voluntary helpers and rescue teams toiled around the clock at least so that part of the town and the vitally important fisheries on the harbour were protected, which up until today deal with almost 20 percent of the Icelandic fish exports. "Then a new danger surfaced", remembers the photographer Sigurgeir Jonasson, who stayed on Heimaey to document the eruption and on the 22nd of March, 2 months later, had to watch how his family’s house was destroyed by the molten river: "The flow of lava threatened to block the harbour entrance."

Heimaey possessed the only harbour on the southern island that was also a somewhat safe haven for ships and fishing boats during the harsh winter storms, sometimes with winds speeds of up to 115 km/h. Jonasson: "If the volcano had blocked off the harbour, then the island would have been uninhabitable, the fisheries would have had to close and the people would not only have been suddenly made homeless but also left with no future."

Scientists from throughout Europe and the USA offered their aid and developed the most unusual theories on how to save the town. One of these even involved shooting a hole on the eastern side of Eldfell with the help of the US- battleship "Arizona" in order to enable to lava to flow into the sea.

However, another similar crazy plan was finally accepted: For this purpose, the US Air Force let one of their particularly efficient waterpumps be flown in specially from Chicago airport. The 1100 degree hot lava front was cooled day and night with millions upon millions of litres of cold seawater, innumerable firemen fought with hoses and shovels against the destructive elemental force of the "Fire Mountain", in order to divert the molten avalanche towards the east into the sea.

The firemen fought for many hours around the protective harbour on the small fishing island of Heimaey
Picture by T. Micke

A month-long show of strength that paid off. When Eldfell finally stopped raging in June of that same year, 417 houses had been destroyed. One firefighter died but the harbour was saved and the island was a good 20 percent bigger.

The clean-up work lasted a whole 2 years and was financed with donations from around the world. The Austrian nursery Starkl even constructed out of private funds a small "Viennese Garden" near the local hospital made up of special sturdy bushes and shrubs, to bring back as quickly as possible the first greenery as a small fleck of light in the burnt, blackened town. < p>Although many of the former island inhabitants downheartedly remained in their newly bought houses in and around Iceland’s capital city Reykjavik, today around 4,600 people live on the Westmann archipelagio – the better part from fishing: cod, codfish, shellfish and herring that are directly processed on the island and shipped to Senegal.

Those who returned have developed a very strong link to their raw island home in the North Atlantic:

Kristjan Egelson, who today runs a small fish and bird museum in the town with his wife, was lucky. His house in the west of the island remained standing. "Vestmannaeyjar is and remains our home," he stresses. "In November 1963 we had already experienced a new piece of land being born in a powerful underground volcanic eruption off the south coast. It was fascinating! This island that goes by the name of Surtsey started off dead and today grasses and flowers grow in summer and the birds come to nest there. We know that we live on a volcano, which could erupt again at any time. Only last year we had of all things a severe earthquake on our national holiday. But nothing serious happened."

The traces of the devastating volcanic eruption on the Westmann Islands in 1963 can still be seen today
Picture by T. Micke

Bjarni Sighuatsson is standing with his wife on the terrace of his his family home on this cold, cloudless autumn afternoon. The last flowers in its small garden appear to have been battered. They do not grow well, says Aurora, because the razorsharp small chunks of lava that are still whipped across the island by the wind on stormy days damage and cut the stems.

Sighuatsson points to the Icelandic mainland 13 kilomentres away, where an immense glacier, the Vatnajökull, places a luminous white crown along the coastline: "% years ago a volcano erupted beneath this glacier and the melted glacial ice formed a heavy tidal wave. This wave ripped off an 8 kilometre long piece of the coastal land into the sea. It was feared that if the volcano erupted once again, and this time more severely, the tidal wave could reach the Westmann Islands."

"Are you concerned as to why anyone would want to live on such an island?" asks Bjarni Sighuatsson pensively: "Most people on Heimaey were born and grew up here. Life is often very difficult, but we have are roots here. We are used to the raw climate and the long, dark winters, even the volcano, which years after its eruption has continued to provide hot water and heating for our homes. During the holidays we travel south to bathe in the sun or to ski in the Austrian Alps. But we are always happy to see our island again. Our families and our fate are simply attached to this special piece of land, even if it sometimes appears to visitors as the gateway to hell. And then he adds as reassurance: "Incidentally, you should perhaps take the first early morning flight to the mainland, if you don’t want to miss your flight to Europe. It is calm and the sun is shining today, but thick cloud and a snowstorm with winds of up to 90 km/h are predicted for tomorrow. Believe me, the afternoon flight will definitely be cancelled!"

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© A report by Tobias Micke (18-11-01) – Contact