Quick-tempered neighbour – Secrets of Vestmannaeyjar (vol. 2) | Bite of Iceland - Travel Blog

Quick-tempered neighbour – Secrets of Vestmannaeyjar (vol. 2)

Posted on Jun 27, 2017 in Travel Bites | No Comments

Westman Islands Vestmannaeyjar

Heimaey, the largest island in the Vest­man­naey­jar arch­i­pel­ago, has an unusu­al and some­what prob­lem­at­ic ten­ant. He appeared for the first time in 1973 and it seems that he set­tled in for good. What’s more, there is a hor­ri­fy­ing sto­ry con­nect­ed with his sight­ing. So there he is, Eld­fell vol­cano or how many peo­ple call him: the Moun­tain of Fire.

12 on the Beaufort’s scale

For a very long time Heimaey res­i­dents lived like all peo­ple in Ice­land do – very calm­ly. Due to the fact that their town was the most impor­tant har­bour in the coun­try, a lot of them rolled up their sleeves and day after day faced with the wild ocean deep. When they did not work, they had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to admire an unbe­liev­able land­scape. From any point of the island they would lean out, they could see vast open space all around. The cur­rent peace­ful life rhythm was sud­den­ly inter­rupt­ed by an inci­dent. It was cold Jan­u­ary night in 1973. Like every evening, peo­ple from Heimaey fell into a bliss­ful sleep, but after a while they were awak­ened in a very harsh and unpleas­ant way. It turned out that an impa­tient vol­cano also woke up after a long nap. What’s more, there was no sign of the volcano’s pres­ence before, as the cone was going to be formed in the near future. At 1:45 with­out any warn­ing, the Earth’s inte­ri­or began to unleash uncon­quer­able lava flows on the sur­face. They came out of the blue also with a quite dev­illed com­pan­ion, ash-blast­ing air. In a flash, the idyl­lic island became a scenery for a scary spectacle.

Chris­t­ian Bick­el, 24.07.1973 (CC)

No one knew how this sto­ry would end if it hap­pened to anoth­er nation. But as the Ice­landers are quite expe­ri­enced when it comes to vol­canic erup­tions, they approached the view of hell­ish lava flows rather in a cold, ana­lyt­i­cal way. For a few pre­vi­ous days the island had been ruled by a mighty down­pour and that night the ocean was tak­en in a pos­ses­sion by a heavy storm, pre­cise­ly a 12 degree on a Beau­fort scale. Because of the ter­ri­ble weath­er, almost the whole fish­ing fleet stayed in the har­bour. We can call it a stroke of luck owing to the fact that it was nec­es­sary to imme­di­ate­ly evac­u­ate over five thou­sand peo­ple. For­tu­nate­ly, with enough boats at hand, it was easy to organ­ise an effec­tive evac­u­a­tion. Every­one had to leave the island imme­di­ate­ly because the lava streams had already begun to be dan­ger­ous and vol­canic ash start­ed to bite people’s lungs. Only the res­cue teams stayed on the island to keep an eye on the entire erup­tion and try to res­cue the belong­ings from the most threat­ened hous­es. After a while, the lava began to rage even more, appro­pri­at­ing a larg­er ter­ri­to­ry and like an enraged fierce approached to the har­bour. Fish­ing was the main source of income for most res­i­dents. Destruc­tion of the har­bour by flow­ing lava would mean the end of the island. Time was press­ing and there was no option to res­cue the ani­mals. All sheep, cat­tle and hors­es were slaughtered.

Westman Islands Vestmannaeyjar Heimaey

Chris­t­ian Bick­el, 24.07.1973 (CC)

Cooling operation

The only way to save the island and the fate of its inhab­i­tants was to stop the lava. It was pos­si­ble to do so by cool­ing it. But what a chal­lenge it was – to chill the lava! Incred­i­bly brave Ice­landic vol­un­teer fire­fight­ers didn’t even think of giv­ing up, although this con­cept could be con­sid­ered as a mis­sion impos­si­ble. So dur­ing the next days they tire­less­ly flood­ed the streams of lava with icy water. Despite the skep­ti­cism of many habit­u­al doubters, the lava flow was under­cut very suc­cess­ful­ly. The fight last­ed, but peo­ple were short of strength. For­tu­nate­ly, Unit­ed States agreed to lend the Ice­landers pow­er­ful cool­ing pumps, which were the only ones capa­ble of fac­ing the flames.

Peo­ple couldn’t calm down the incon­ceiv­ably pow­er­ful nature for sev­er­al months, and at that moment over six mil­lion liters of sea­wa­ter were pumped to the vol­cano. Final­ly, when the res­cue oper­a­tion was final­ly over and it was known that the har­bour was not in dan­ger, the islanders cel­e­brat­ed for many days. After end­less cheers in hon­our of the fire­fight­ers and many enjoy­able social gath­er­ings, the recon­struc­tion of the town began. As prag­mat­ic Scan­di­na­vians, Ice­landers began to use the ener­gy of slow­ly cool­ing lava to heat water and to gen­er­ate elec­tric­i­ty. In addi­tion to the numer­ous dam­ages and mess that the vol­cano caused, there was also some­thing unex­pect­ed­ly joy­ful for Heimaey inhab­i­tants. Because of the erup­tion the island’s area gained a brand new and unusu­al­ly beau­ti­ful piece of land.

Westman Islands Vestmannaeyjar Heimaey

Terms of endearment

Some time after the erup­tion, peo­ple start­ed to think how they should call their new vol­canic neigh­bour. It was a hot top­ic, so every­one had some­thing to say on this sub­ject. Many were say­ing that it should go down in his­to­ry as Kirkjufell (Church Moun­tain) because the erup­tion start­ed on the farm which was called Church Farm. Oth­er pop­u­lar sug­ges­tion was also Rum­ble Moun­tain. Final­ly, to the dis­con­tent of the inhab­i­tants, the com­mit­tee decid­ed that the vol­cano would be called Eld­fell, Fire Moun­tain. In their opin­ion, Eld­fell was def­i­nite­ly too com­mon, for some even tacky, because you can call ‘eld­fell’ every vol­cano. After all, the name was final­ly accept­ed by a com­mit­tee, but know­ing the rebel­lious nature of the Ice­landers, prob­a­bly every­one has its own affec­tion­ate nick­name for their vol­canic neighbour.

Westman Islands Vestmannaeyjar Heimaey

Westman Islands Vestmannaeyjar Heimaey

Eld­heimar Muse­um shows a great exhi­bi­tion about the erup­tion in 1973.

Westman Islands Vestmannaeyjar Heimaey Map

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