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.
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
Ten years prior, a passing fishing trawler witnessed the birth
of a new volcanic island in the same archipelago. (previously