Two More Volcanoes: Two Towns Half Buried


Lava approaching Heimaey photo by VicPhotoria via Shutterstock

As you fly towards Iceland from Europe, or as you drive along the Ring Road from Reykjavík to Vík, you see a group of cubic islands, which look like poker dice tossed into the sea by some gambling troll. 

These are the Westman Islands, and they contain two volcanoes of note. One is the island of Surtsey, which is the westernmost die. This thrust itself out of the sea to form an island in 1963 in a spectacular eruption that lasted four years. 

The island covered one square mile right after the eruption finished, but has already halved in size with erosion. Scientists are trying to keep the island pristine to study how life takes hold on a brand-new chunk of land, but according to the Christian Science Monitor an ‘improperly handled human defecation event’ resulted in a tomato sprouting on the island. It has been removed.


The other volcano takes up half of the biggest Westman Island, Heimaey. The other half is taken up by quite a large fishing port, with a population of about five thousand people - big by Iceland’s standards. There are also a lot of puffins on the island.

In the middle of one night in January 1973, the volcano erupted. The side of the mountain was blown away and lava started oozing down towards the town. Fortunately, forecast bad weather meant that the fishing fleet of seventy vessels was still in port. With an extraordinary display of speed, initiative and courage, the Westman Islanders evacuated the inhabitants and the sheep as the lava flow reached the town. Of 1,350 homes on the island, about 400 were swallowed up, creating a northern Pompeii. Two unfortunate sixteen-year-olds were in bed with each other, unknown to their parents, but they escaped. 

Having taken out part of the town, the lava threatened to block up the harbour, which would destroy Heimaey’s future viability as a fishing port. Local fishermen managed to stop the lava by spraying it with cold seawater, freezing it halfway across the mouth of the harbour. It worked: Heimaey now has a very useful breakwater, and remains one of the busiest commercial fishing ports in Iceland.

The town survived, the inhabitants returned and only one man died: an alcoholic who tried to break into an abandoned pharmacy. There is a wonderful museum in the town explaining the event. And thousands of puffins still inhabit the cliffs.


But the most devastating eruption of all was Laki in 1783. 

The eruption took place in the spring. One hundred and thirty-five craters opened up, throwing molten rock three thousand feet into the air. Lava leaked out everywhere. One powerful flow headed for the village of Kirkjubaejarklaustur, a tongue-twisting village of nineteen letters situated on the foothills above the flood plain desert to the east of Vík. (Those of you who counted the letters to check should remember ‘æ’ is one letter in Icelandic). 

As the lava reached the village one Sunday, the parishioners gathered in the church, and the pastor, Jón, gave a sermon which stopped the flow. The lava field, two hundred years old now, is of course still very much visible on the edges of the community, not far from the church. Somehow the name of the village, at nineteen letters the longest in Iceland, remained intact.

The Haze Famine

The lava fires went on for eight months. But the effects of Laki were felt far beyond Kirkjubaejarklaustur, or even Iceland. The volcano tossed huge amounts of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, as well as ash containing all kinds of poisonous elements. A blue haze cloaked Iceland; pastures were poisoned. This ushered in the ‘haze famine’. First the animals died - three-quarters of the livestock in Iceland. Then the people. Iceland nearly failed: there were discussions of evacuating the whole population of the country, 38,000 people, to Denmark.

The haze drifted across Europe, reaching Bergen, Prague, Berlin, Paris and Britain, creating a thick fog and turning the sun blood red. An estimated 20,000 Britons died that summer. Temperatures soared: the summer of 1783 was the hottest on record in Northern Europe, causing thunderstorms that produced hailstones so big they killed cows. 

Then winter came - 28 days of continuous frost in southern England, and a further 8,000 deaths. In North America, the winter of 1784 was the longest and one of the coldest on record: the Chesapeake Bay froze for weeks, and there were even ice floes in the Gulf of Mexico. The eruption and the crop failures following it have been cited as one of the causes of the French Revolution.

Scary. We’ve seen what Eyjafjallajökull can do to twenty-first-century life; another Laki eruption would be much worse. But easier to spell.

If you would like to receive a free copy of my 60-page novella The Polar Bear Killing and occasional emails about my books, sign up here. 
Photo credit (top): VicPhotoria via Shutterstock


Popular posts from this blog

My Icelandic Crime Novels: How are They Different?

Snow in Iceland

A Five-Day Iceland Itinerary