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Eldfell Volcano (Cinder Volcano)

    Can you imagine awaking from your sleep to see a curtain of fire from your backyard? This is what the residents of Heimaey, an island off the coast of Iceland, experienced on the night of January 23, 1973.  What the authorities did not know was that a new volcano was forming close to the 5000-year-old Helgafell volcano. The following is a personal communication between a scientist from the University of Iceland to an official of the government of Iceland on the mainland.

Communication from S.Thorarinsson to Flosi Hrafn Sigurdsson

      The following cable was received . . . on 23 January 1973. "An intense volcanic eruption on the east side of the mountain Helgafell, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland, was observed at 0155 GMT on 23 January 1973. Lava is flowing eastwards from a fissure some 1,500 m long. Approximate location: Latitude 63°26' N,  Longitude  20°16' W. The eruption was preceded by a swarm of small earthquakes on 22 and 23 January. The largest earthquake was 2.6 on the Richter scale. The nearby town of Vestmannaeyjar, inhabited by about 5,000 people, has been mostly evacuated to the mainland. No casualties."

S. Thorarinsson, Science Institute, University of Iceland; Flosi Hrafn Sigurdsson, Iceland Meteorological Office.

  The New Volcano: Eldfell

    On the morning of Tuesday, 23rd January 1973, at 1.55.a.m., an eruption began from a 1600-metre fissure on the eastern side of Heimaey in the Westman Islands. The eruption came without warning and was totally unexpected.

    A few mild shocks had been felt from 10 p.m. that night, the sharpest of them occurring at 1.40 a.m. On Monday night, 22nd January, people in Heimaey went to bed at the usual time, as on a normal weekday.

      All the boats were in the harbor, for during the day there had been a south-easterly gale, force 12, with rainfall. Just before 2 a.m. there was a telephone call to the police station in the town center. Information was received that an eruption had started a short distance above and east of Kirkjubær," the church farm" at the easternmost end of the town.

    The police officers on duty immediately drove to the area, where they found the fissure east of Kirkjubær had now opened all the way to the sea to the north, and southwards east of Helgafell, as far as they could see.

    The whole length of the fissure was erupting, with a row of lava fountains so close to one another that it was like an unbroken wall of fire. The eruption began in what is now the main crater of the new volcano, later known as Eldfell.  From the beginning lava ran down the slope from the fissure east and north-east. Soon the fire alarm was sounded, while fire and police cars patrolled the streets with sirens going in order to wake people.

    Within about two hours most of the population was afoot. People then began to stream down to the harbor, having just had time to put on the most necessary warm clothing and gather together a few belongings. Thanks to the gale of the previous day there were between 60-70 boats in the harbor.

    Vessels and other ships that had taken shelter there were now hurriedly prepared for departure, and the fist left for Þorlákshöfn at 2.30 a.m. followed by a steady stream. For reasons of safety, the town council decided that night to evacuate the whole population, apart from those employed on essential work.

    There was a danger of the harbor approaches being sealed off, should the fissure extend any further northwards, while the airfield might be closed, too, if it extended southwards. Contact was also made with Icelandair, the smaller airways companies in Reykjavik, and the NATO Defense Force in Keflavik.

    Aircraft from all these landed on Heimaey, for it was good flying weather, and during the night 300 people, mostly the sick and aged, were transported to Reykjavik by air. Some time after 4 a.m. the State Radio began to broadcast announcements and news reports on the eruption. Thus it may be reckoned that about 5,000 people were evacuated from Heimaey on the first night of the eruption, most of them by boat.

    The whole operation went remarkably smoothly and without mishap, thanks above all the favorable weather that night, but also to the calmness of the people in face of the calamity that had overwhelmed them. By the morning of Tuesday, 23rd January the most urgent rescue operations had, therefore, been completed and the islanders escaped unscathed from the greatest peril that had ever threatened the population of an urban area in Iceland. Between two and three hundred stayed behind to carry out essential duties.

  Recent Geologic Activity: Selfoss: June 17th 2000.

  A large earthquake (6.2 on the Richter Scale) struck southern Iceland at 15:40 local time. The tremors knocked off power in large areas, including the Westman Islands. The telephone system and some radio transmitters were also off the air for a while. This is largest earthquake southern Iceland has seen since 1896 when a lot of buildings were damaged in a large-scale quake.

Top Picture Source: The photograph was taken by the late Svienn Eirikksen, fire marshal of the town of Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands).

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