Icelandic Eldfell Volcanic Eruption: Heimaey Island evacuation

Iceland’s Eldfell Volcano Eruption

The eruption of the Eldfell volcano on Heimaey Island, Iceland, in 1973 led to the emergency evacuation of the island’s population and a months-long battle to save the island’s vital infrastructure and fishing industry.

The eruption began suddenly on January 23, 1973, when a fissure opened up near the edge of the town of Vestmannaeyjar on Heimaey, the largest and only inhabited island of the Westman Islands archipelago. At the time, Heimaey was home to around 5,300 people, who relied heavily on the fishing industry for their livelihoods.

As lava and ash from the eruption began to threaten the town and harbor, the island’s population was evacuated to the mainland swiftly and efficiently. The Icelandic government, the Red Cross, and the local fishing fleet worked together to transport residents off the island, with most being evacuated within 24 hours. Miraculously, only one person lost their life as a result of the eruption.

Over the following months, Icelanders mounted an extraordinary effort to save the island’s harbor, which was at risk of being closed off by lava flows. They sprayed seawater on the advancing lava to cool and solidify it, preventing the closure of the harbor entrance and preserving the island’s critical fishing industry. The operation was successful, and the harbor remained open and functional.

The eruption continued until July 3, 1973, dramatically altering the island, with almost one-fifth of the town buried under lava and ash. Many residents returned to Heimaey to rebuild their homes and lives, and the island’s population gradually recovered. Today, the eruption and its aftermath remain an important part of Icelandic history, and the site serves as a popular tourist attraction, showcasing the power of nature and the resilience of the human spirit.