Volcano vs Man: The Tale of Eldfell

The tale of Eldfell vs the town of Vestmannaeyjar is one of heroism and action. What? You’ve not heard of this epic tale? You are in for a treat.


It is not often you hear of people trying to fight a volcano. But in Vestmannaeyja, that is exactly what the townspeople did to stop the lava flow from Eldfell from destroying their town.


Located in Iceland, on the island of Heimaey, a fissure opened up on the 23rd of January, 1973, pouring out hot, molten lava towards the town of Vestmannaeyja. The fissure was almost 2km long, located near to the town, forcing the evacuation of almost all of the 5300 residents.



Figure above: Map of Heimaey island (Williams and Moore, 1983)


The activity continued, changing from a fire fountain to a central vent. As a result of this centralization, a cinder and spatter cone formed, 100m above sea level. The eruption continued for five months, producing not only lava but also over 1.5 million tons of ash burying the town.  Over 800 homes were destroyed by the time the eruption ended in July.


fountain central

Figure: (left) Fissure eruption (right) centralised vent eruption (Photos by Svienn Eirikksen)


During the course of the eruption, the lava flow buried part of the town and headed toward the harbor. Because Vestmannaeyja is a fishing town, the destruction of their harbor would result in the loss of their primary source of income, their fishing fleet. As a result, the few emergency personnel who stayed behind decided to fight the lava flow!


harbour  lava flow

Figure: (left) The harbour of the town of Vestmannaeyja. (right) Emergency personnel fighting the lava flow that entered town. (Photos by Svienn Eirikksen)

Using over 30km of pipes and 43 pumps, they pumped over 6 million cubic meters of seawater onto the advancing lava flow. The lava cooling operation started in February, when the lava flow started to encroach into town, and ended in July. After the eruption ended, the residents returned and cleared the lava flows in several areas, rebuilding the buildings destroyed in the eruption. In addition to their recovery operation, the residents of Vestmannaeyja converted the cooling lava flows into a source of heat for water and electricity! The ash fall out was used as material for landfill as well as road material for the airport runway. 



Figure above: Fighting the lava flow with sea water (Photo by Svienn Eirikksen)


In the end, 2.5 square kilometers of land was added to the island, the people got a free source of geothermal energy, and they managed to fight Eldfell the volcano!

Check out this really cool video of the 1973 eruption



For more information, you should check out the official USGS publication about the eruption!