Video | Iceland

Top of the World: The Town that Survived a Lava Flow

In 1973, the island of Heimaey in Iceland was the site of one of the most epic volcanic eruptions in modern European history. See why this story is not one of despair, but rather of resilience and hope, and how the residents of Heimaey saved their harbour and their livelihoods.

Video Transcript

A massive volcanic eruption, devastating an entire town. Lava spewing everywhere and ash so thick you can barely breathe. It may sound like Pompeii in 79 CE, but would you believe the setting is Heimaey, Iceland in 1973?

This is the Westman Archipelago, a group of small islands off Iceland's south coast that were formed over 10,000 years ago. About 4,300 residents live in the small town of Vestmannaeyjar. This otherwise quaint and quiet fishing port was the site of one of the most epic volcanic eruptions in modern European history.

[News broadcaster]: The worst catastrophe Icelanders have faced...

On January 23, 1973, of volcanic eruption occurred just 500 meters from the outskirts of Vestmannaeyjar. One hundred and fifty-meter fountains of lava shot upwards, glowing against the dark winter skies. These eruptions wouldn't stop for six months, until June 26. What occurred during that time changed Heimaey forever.

The day before the eruption, there had been a storm at sea. That's usually bad news for fishermen. But for Heimaey, this was a stroke of luck. The storm meant the whole fishing fleet was in the harbour. Over the course of six hours, the vast majority of the residents of the island were taken on boats to Iceland's mainland.

Emergency workers stayed behind, as well as volunteers, who did their best to save what they could. When they evacuated, residents of Heimaey may couldn't bring most of their possessions with them. They didn't even know if they would ever see their homes again. But the most vital question was: what would happen to the harbour at Heimaey?

[News broadcaster]: The main flow of molten lava has run into the sea, and it's feared that if it continues to do so, it will seal off the entrance to the harbour, which has provided the only income for the Westman islanders.

If the lava flow blocked the mouth of the harbour, the fishing industry and the entire economy would be doomed. The people of Heimaey worked tirelessly day and night to save their harbour. They pumped in cold seawater to cool and divert the lava flow before it could clog the harbour. To this day, it's the largest lava cooling effort ever undertaken—and it worked!

The lava flow, however, wasn't the only thing the citizens had to worry about. Rock fragments from the volcano, known as tephra, came raining down from the sky. Workers wore steel helmets and sometimes had to run for cover. Some chunks of tephra were so hot and heavy, they crashed through buildings, leading to fire and even more destruction.

Poisonous gases were another hazard. One worker died after succumbing to carbon monoxide poisoning. And on top of all this, 200,000,000 tons of ash came raining down on the island. Bright white, snowy landscapes were replaced with dark black ash, burying many buildings.

In June, the volcanoes ceased erupting, after destroying 400 buildings and homes. But by working together, the people of Heimaey had saved their harbour, and they made the most of their unfortunate episode. Heat from the cooling lava was a source of geothermal energy for the town for years after the eruption.

Today, Heimaey is home to an excellent volcanic interpretation centre, built around one of the houses formerly buried in the ash. Tourists come from all over the world to marvel at the town that survived a lava flow.