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Eldfell Volcano
July 7, 2014 6:16 PM   Subscribe

The Vestmannaeyjar Archipelago, off the south coast of Iceland, was first settled in 874 AD. Heimaey, the only populated island, was home to both a center of the Icelandic fishing industry, and a volcano which had never erupted during nearly a millennium of continuous human settlement. Then, in 1973, all hell broke loose.

On January 23rd at around 2AM, a 300 meter fissure opened up on the island and rapidly grew to 2 kilometers in length (and ultimately extended to 3 km), with lava fountaining up to 150 meters high along its length. With lava already rolling into the town, the residents were evacuated, with the first boats departing just half an hour after the eruption began. Within two days, the new cinder cone was over 100 meters tall, eventually reaching more than 200 meters.

Heimaey had one of the few good harbors on the southern part of Iceland, but the massive flow of lava over the next few months threatened to cut it off. After an initial experiment proved successful, the townsfolk began a massive operation to pump seawater onto the lava to slow its advance. With 43 pumps and 19 miles of pipe they managed to save the harbor.

The eruption ultimately added more than two square kilometers of land to the island and destroyed hundreds of houses (either swallowed by lava, crushed under the weight of volcanic rock and ash, or lost to fire), but caused only one human fatality. After the eruption, the town began to use the residual heat from the lava flows to heat water and generate electricity. The fissure from the eruption remains visible.

Some of the lost houses were preserved under the ash, and have recently been excavated. With the middle-of-the-night evacuation and little time to pack, the homes were frozen in time; one was selected as the centerpiece of a new museum.

Bonus: Ten years prior, a passing fishing trawler witnessed the birth of a new volcanic island in the same archipelago. (previously)
posted by Blue Jello Elf (21 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite

 
After the eruption, the islanders used heat from the cooling lava flows to provide hot water and to generate electricity. They also used some of the extensive tephra, fall-out of airborne volcanic material, to extend the runway at the island's small airport, and as landfill, on which 200 new houses were built.

Damn, we are an unbelievably and impressively adaptable species.
posted by MoxieProxy at 6:23 PM on July 7 [13 favorites]


I was there last summer... it's an amazing place to visit, and the resilience of the people is apparent everywhere. On top of the lava, where you can hike and get a great view of the town, are little signs, each of which marks where a house was buried below in the eruption. I have pictures; I'll post one tomorrow.
posted by Huck500 at 6:29 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


Totally neat - I never knew!

Great job on your first FPP.
posted by Dashy at 6:32 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


So much of Iceland's history boils down to "people came, thrived, started to expand ...and then a volcano killed them all."
posted by The Whelk at 6:33 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


Years ago, I saw something on TV where they were cooling lava flows in Hawaii with water pumps to try to save houses. It was amazing how rapidly houses just WHOOSH!!! went up in flames any time the tip of a flow finally contacted them. It was an incredible and scary testament to how freaking hot rock has to get to be molten -- to be liquid.

This is fascinating stuff. Thank you for posting it.

Huck 500: Please post pic(s)!
posted by Michele in California at 6:48 PM on July 7


This story forms the second part of John McPhee's The Control of Nature. It's one of McPhee's best books, seriously a must-read.
posted by nixt at 6:51 PM on July 7 [5 favorites]


Years ago, I saw something on TV where they were cooling lava flows in Hawaii with water pumps to try to save houses. It was amazing how rapidly houses just WHOOSH!!! went up in flames any time the tip of a flow finally contacted them. It was an incredible and scary testament to how freaking hot rock has to get to be molten -- to be liquid.

What was the building material? Was it wood? Would the same thing happen with brick, stone or concrete? (Not being disingenuous, also not a representative of Three Little Pigs Construction Ltd.)
posted by kersplunk at 7:10 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


This story of the Heimaey eruption and cooling the lava to save the harbor (which I learned of in The Control of Nature) is one of my favorites. When we first visited Iceland, getting out there was tops on my list. The ferry ride out there is kind of miserable, but it's so worth going.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:22 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


I was born in Reykjav├Čk the same year. I heard a lot about this but don't remember too much from the time (go figure). Awesome post, thanks!
Bonus trivia: Heimaey is where Keiko was returned to be free.
posted by hypersloth at 7:55 PM on July 7


This story of the Heimaey eruption and cooling the lava to save the harbor

I learned about it when it was mentioned in passing by Anne Heche's character in the execrable film Volcano in which LA is destroyed by a volcano.
posted by elizardbits at 8:00 PM on July 7


The John McPhee book nixt mentioned has one of my all time favorite lines in it:
It was landscape on the loose, an incongruous itinerant alp, its summit high above the lava plain, its heading north by northwest.
posted by moonmilk at 8:08 PM on July 7 [4 favorites]


I remember reading about this in National Geographic as a kid. If I remember the article correctly, the lava flow that almost closed the harbour actually improved it by providing better protection from ocean storms.
posted by e-man at 10:30 PM on July 7


Nothing can defeat Icelanders. Not volcanoes, not their cuisine; nothing.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:07 AM on July 8 [3 favorites]


Not another magma post.
posted by srednivashtar at 2:29 AM on July 8


Iceland has some of the most fascinating landscape. As you go around the southern part of the ring road, on one side you have incredibly flat almost featureless landscape for miles till it hits the sea. Then on the other side you have the polar opposite, and its sheer rock wall or glacier.

Both sides are beautiful but such stark contrasts between the two, and all by rotating your head 180 degrees.

I didn't know about this island when we visited but it sounds interesting.
posted by Twain Device at 4:15 AM on July 8


"Oh my god, you guys, turns out the 'Mountain of Fire' is a VOLCANO!!!"
posted by nathancaswell at 5:15 AM on July 8


kersplunk, I don't know the answer to your question but I am assuming, yeah, wood siding at least.

The temperature of lava when it is first ejected from a volcanic vent can vary between 700 and 1,200 degrees C (1,300 to 2,200 F).

vid of houses burning in Hawaii from lava flow event

longer vid
posted by Michele in California at 9:41 AM on July 8


Here are some pics from my trip to Vestmannaeyjar, and a couple from Iceland and Greenland. Numbers 4 and 5 show the volcanic material that buried part of the town, with the sign marking where a house is underneath. Here's a flickr link to the same sign in 2009, so four years earlier.

The house in the middle of an inaccessible island is used occasionally during puffin hunting season, if I remember correctly.

The Doritos and the Hilux were just oddities to show friends... there are A LOT of trucks built up like that one in Iceland. The horse is an Icelandic colt. The soccer match was the view from our hotel window in Greenland.
posted by Huck500 at 12:10 PM on July 8 [4 favorites]


Hey, Huck500, in Greenland you weren't in Arsuk were you?
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:05 PM on July 8


Nope, Tasiilaq.
posted by Huck500 at 3:40 PM on July 8


On my bucket list and now more than ever! Thanks ...
posted by KeyWestElla at 10:17 AM on July 16


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