Eldfell: 1973 to 1998 - A 25 year retrospective.

Monday, November 23, 1998

This is the fourth and final article covering the 1963 to 1973 eruptions in the Westmann Island group of the south coast of Iceland. Previous commentaries have mentioned Surtsey (WAT ON EARTH, Spring issue 1997), the start of the eruption on Heimaey (WAT ON EARTH, Fall issue 1997) and the closing stages of the Eldfell eruption (WAT ON EARTH, Spring issue 1998). In October 1974 I completed a film for the CBC television programme, "The Nature of Things" and for the PBS network in the United States. The Heimaey Eruption: Iceland 1973 documented the battle to save the town from the volcano, Eldfell. In July 1998 I returned to Heimaey to see the changes on the island over the 25 years and to document the changes with video. I hope to use this to supplement the 1974 film and to produce a teaching CD-ROM illustrating the eruption.

Another blue-sky day in the Westmann Islands as the ferry from Thorlakshafn approached the towering mass of Heimaklettur. Ahead of the ship the puffins, guillemots and razorbills fluttered across the surface of the sea. At last we rounded Heimaklettur and Eldfell came into view. Beaches! My first impression of change was the beaches. Formerly the lava front had fallen steeply into the sea. Now there were broad expanses of grey-white boulders and cobbles along the shoreline.View from HelgafellSame view in July 1998

 

 

 

 

 

 

Left: View from Helgafell during the eruption in April 1973. Right: Same view in July 1998. Note the new street occupying the former position of the trench 

The ferry maneuvered a zigzag path along the harbor approach finally sliding between the two breakwaters and into the port at Vestmannaeyjar. My second impression was the derelict appearance of the Fiskidjan plant. This was the fish plant that had been one of the focal points of the battle to save the port 25 years earlier.

On the way to the island I had been very fortunate in meeting an Icelandic filmmaking team and Sigurdur and Angelika had invited me to stay in the guesthouse that they were using on Heimaey. As we moved through the town the third impression hit. Traffic lights. Vestmannaeyjar now had white lines painted on most of the main streets, traffic lights at many intersections, and far more cars than I remembered from previous visits to the town. Of course, the weather was helping, but there was a general sense of prosperity about the settlement. The paintwork was fresh with sparkling white walls, bright blue, red and green rooftops, and an abundance of flowers in gardens throughout the town.

I glanced toward Eldfell and immediately noticed three things. The lava flow was covered in a veneer of grey-green moss. Both Helgafell and the lower two-thirds of Eldfell were covered in a verdant strip of emerald green grass. The last point puzzled me somewhat. Eldfell, like me, seemed to be suffering from a degree of middle age spread! The profile of the volcanic cone appeared lower, almost as though the volcano was getting comfortable and settling in for a long snooze. (I later found out that the summit is, in fact, about 18 to 20m lower than it was at the close of the eruption).

The moment I arrived at the guesthouse I unpacked and prepared to leave for Helgafell. Less than one hour later I was standing on the summit of the old volcano gazing down on the panorama of town that had battled a volcano and had survived. Directly ahead of me was a new street, Helgafellsbraut, running from the base of Helgafell to the town centre. Back in the ill-fated days of the eruption the line of this street was a trench created to divert gas away from the town.

Off to the South I could see the swimming pool constructed to replace the small pool choked by the aa flows of March 1973. Beyond the swimming pool was a new school with major playing fields, and new housing estates. These were all constructed on the ash moved from the eastern and central parts of the town in 1974, the year following the eruption. Beyond the housing estates a new golf course and, distantly, the sound of a rock band testing a sound system for the Heimaey Festival that was due to begin in 48 hours.

Looking ahead, the port was crowded with many trawlers. The lava front that had come so close to destroying the town and infilling the harbour, was graded and planted with grass and flowers. I could see a number of roads running across the top of the entire lava field. Even as I watched, a tourist bus wound its way from the town toward the centre of the lava field on its way to the base of Eldfell. The summit of the new volcano was a rusty brown, with a few wisps of steam emerging from cracks. Tomorrow, I thought, will be soon enough to re-aquaint myself with this 25-year-old youngster.

Wind-break fences and revegetationWind-break fences and revegetation on the upper slopes of Eldfell, July 1998.

Amazingly enough the following day was blessed with a clear blue sky. As I climbed the hill running around the back of Helgafell, I thought of the harbour pilot who had driven this same road on January 23rd 1973. The topography had been different in those days. The road was very close to the old coastline and nothing obstructed the view toward the mainland some 15 kilometers to the North. On this morning the towering cinder cone of Eldfell obscured the view to the north. I slowly labored up the south flank of a volcano pausing to look at the attempts made by the Icelanders to stabilize the sides of the volcano. Within the first few months of eruption this area had been successfully seeded with grass. Now, after a quarter-century, the vegetation was thick and luxuriant. Higher on the flanks of the volcano the battle with nature was still being fought. Plastic mesh was holding the loose ash in place, preventing the inevitable down-slope movement of rock fragments. Placed vertically up the side of Eldfell were a number of fences with what appeared to be test plots containing different varieties of plants. Some of these strips appeared to be colonising successfully, and green stripes of grasses were running towards the summit. I stepped over bombs and blocks that had been ejected when I was 30 years old, and slowly made my way to the top.

Cresting the ridge just below summit I encountered a television crew from the United States making a programme for children about visits to interesting places. I stopped my own videotaping to participate in a short clip reminiscing about what it had been like in the days of the eruption. They soon left, and I remained alone on top of the old nemesis of Vestmannaeyjar. Again, I thought of our place on this planet. I had been taught in school about the length of geological time and of the slow nature of geological processes. The Heimaey eruption illustrated that these processes are not always slow. Within less than six months hundreds of millions of tons of ash and lava had poured from the fissure across Heimaey. Now, 25 years later, humans had radically altered the lava field, and nature had eroded the shoreline. New promontories and beaches could be seen in several places along the eastern side of the new lava field.

The area northeast of the volcano that had been developed for geothermal heating now was abandoned. The only trace that it had existed was a flattened area in the lava flow, and a raised green ridge that marked the former line of the hot water pipeline into the town. I picked up my camera and tripod, noticing with a smile, that I had succeeded in melting another tip of a tripod leg! It brought back memories of melting all three legs of my tripod on the lava flows from Eldfell in January of 1973. I made my way down from the summit noticing how oxidised the slopes of volcano had become. Eventually I reached the lava front. I had decided to try to match photographs taken in the town in 1973 by standing in the same position and re-photographing the view.

Same view in July 1998

Crushed houses

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Left: Crushed houses along the lava front April 1973. Right: Same view in July 1998. The lava front has been graded, and the two buildings (foreground left, 1973) have gone. Note the new hospital in the middle distance.

This was easier said than done. Things have really changed in Vestmannaeyjar! In some places the ground has been re-graded. This meant that I could no longer stand in precisely the same spot. In other places new buildings have been erected on previously vacant lots, or, old buildings have been demolished. This created some problems in trying to get a precise match with the old photographs. However, I was able to succeed in many places, although with a degree of personal risk. For example, in 1973 I had photographed many scenes from the centre of roads. During eruption there were very few cars, and those that were around were travelling quite slowly through the ash-choked streets of the town. July 1998 was quite a different proposition. Standing in the center of the major roadways in the town trying to match precisely the view captured 25 years earlier was a hazardous exercise! On a number of occasions I had to move swiftly back to kerb to allow streams of traffic to pass at relatively high speeds.

Moving away from the centre of the town, I eventually arrived at the harbour. The Fiskidjan fish plant was closed. I was told that this was the result of rationalisation and the consolidation of fish processing facilities on the island. I thought of the tremendous efforts that had been made by so many people to save this one building from the onslaught of lava in March and April of 1973. To me this plant had been the centre of the struggle to save the port. However, times do change, and I walked on to the breakwater at the eastern edge of the harbour. The cement pillars that had been crushed by the advancing lava were still visible beneath the edge of the flow. A little further on the cracked remnants of the salt-water tank that had fed the fish plant still was standing, albeit with a new radar reflector on the side. I knew that less than 100 m to the south the remains of the swimming pool would, perhaps, someday be uncovered by future archaeological teams.

The beach north of the harbour entrance.The beach north of the harbour entrance. Originally the lava front dropped straight into the sea at this point, but erosion over the 25 years has created a 100m wide beach of rounded basaltic clasts.

Just a few things remained. The beaches and new developments on the lava field. I moved to the east following the old lava front. Ahead stretched a broad beach of gray basalt boulders, cobbles and sand. It was hard to imagine that this had all been produced in less than 25 years. The principal battle with a volcano had been to prevent the lava flows from closing the entrance to the port. This battle had been won by the use of seawater that had been sprayed on to the advancing lava front from boats in the channel between Heimaklettur and the lava front. Today the battle was being continued by dredging and by marker buoys that indicated a safe passage for shipping into the port. I was later told by Thorleifur Einarsson that almost one-tenth of the lava field has been removed by the sea, and about one-half of that has been converted to new beaches.

Moving further into the lava field I looked at the information area commemorating the battle with Eldfell. A series of poster boards in a small pull-off beside the road provided a concise and accurate account of the eruption. Photographs illustrated some of the major events, and beside the display was one of the diesel pumps that had been used to take seawater to the lava front. Close by was the new town incinerator. This was located in a position where "waste" heat could be placed into the water pipeline that runs to the central heating plant for the town. This pipeline had been used for almost a decade to take geothermally-heated water from the lava field into Vestmannaeyjar. Although the principal source from lava field was terminated in 1990 some residual heat is still passed to the town from the incinerator. The town still uses the central heating system designed to distribute geothermal water; however, it now uses electrically-heated water in the distribution system. The latest thoughts on the potential geothermal power on the island is that a deep borehole, perhaps to 1.5 or 2 km might provide a renewed and more permanent heat source for the town.

The incinerator plant on HeimaeyThe incinerator plant on Heimaey. The mound running from the bottom centre to the left is the old geothermal line from the lava field to the town pumping station.

Finally I ventured deep into the lava field. I have already mentioned the seeding application that was conducted shortly after the start of the eruption. At that time the lava field retained too much residual heat for seed germination. However, in the decades that have passed, various areas of the flow have cooled sufficiently to allow successful plant recolonisation. Much of the lava surface is covered with mosses and in a number of places grasses and flowers, both native and domestic, have re- established themselves. Perhaps the most striking example of the potential of the lava field is a garden about 40 by 10m created by an elderly couple in 1988. This is a small oasis that confirms the belief that the lava field can be "domesticated" with time and a lot of loving care.

A garden in the lava fieldA garden in the lava field. This was commenced in 1988, and has been maintained by an elderly couple.

My visit to Heimaey concluded as it began via a return to Thorlakshafn by ferry. As the Herjolfur sailed out of the port I wondered what changes that the future would bring? Off on the port side of the ferry in the shelter of Heimaklettur was the sea pen for Keiko, the Orca (killer whale) from the Westmann Islands that has had a somewhat checkered career as the star for the film "Free Willy". He is due back on the island on board a Galaxy Starlifter sometime in early September 1998. This will be quite an occasion as one of the world's largest aircraft settles down onto the runway at Vestmannaeyjar. Obviously tourism will continue - perhaps helped by another rumoured development - an undersea tunnel to the island from the mainland!

I hope that if you have the chance someday, you will be able to visit the island. I know that it has had an interesting influence on my life, possibly it might do the same for you.

Alan V. Morgan

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