I wrote a blog last week about a cluster of islands south of the mainland called Vestmannaeyjar or Westman-Islands. It’s one of my favorite places in Iceland and I recommend my previous blog where I list up all the reasons why I love it so much. But this is also the site of one of our most recent and dramatic natural disasters: the volcanic eruption on the main island Heimaey in 1973.
Over 5,300 people lived in the town of Vestmannaeyjar on Heimaey in 1973 and I should emphasize that this is a relatively small island. So when a volcanic eruption started, seemingly out of the blue, in the middle of the night on January 23rd it was literally in their backyard. For what can only be described as a miracle, a storm the previous day meant that the village’s entire fleet of fishing boats was docked at the harbor. This made it possible to evacuate the entire population, all but around 200 rescue workers who stayed behind to fight the fire and to try and rescue livestock and property.
The eruption lasted five months and destroyed a third of the buildings on Heimaey. 400 homes were lost to lava and ash and another 400 were damaged. The displaced villagers stayed in emergency homes or with friends and family on the mainland while they waited to see what would become of their homes, their places of work, their neighborhood, and land. While both traumatic and sad, this event is also remembered for the miraculous evacuation and the unity and solidarity felt all over the country.
A fifth of the population never returned but those who did were met with a new mountain, Eldfell, and a new lava field that had changed the face of the island forever. The entrance to the harbor was narrower and the island itself had grown 2,1 km2 in size. You can walk on this brand new land now, 44 years later, and while it looks barren from afar you’ll soon discover that it is full of life; moss, grass, and insects.
You really need to see this to believe it and the best place to see it is in the Eldheimar museum in the Westman-Islands. This museum is built around one of the houses that were buried in ash in the eruption, dug up a few years ago after having spent over 40 years underground. The museum walks you through the events as they took place and explains in a visual, hands-on kind of way how incredibly powerful the natural elements are but also the incredible feats human beings are capable of when united with a purpose.
If you visit the Westman-Islands and I highly recommend that you do, make sure you stop by at the Eldheimar museum, it is truly worth the trip and just in case I’ve scared you away from volcanic islands for life, you should know that technological advances of the last five decades or so mean that we’ll get a fair warning next time.