Iceland has a famous, or perhaps infamous, history of violent volcanic eruptions. Its many volcanoes have caused destruction and chaos both domestically and across the world over the last thousand years, and Edfell Volcano, in the Westman Islands, was no different when it ferociously erupted in 1973.
However, what has changed over the years is technology. Local scientists are now more equipped than ever to predict and respond quickly to tectonic activity. During the last few decades, when an eruption was imminent, evacuations and other measures were carried out rapidly. Thankfully, because of this, no one has died as a result of Iceland’s volcano eruptions for a long time.
In this article, we’re covering all you need to know about the famous Eldfell Volcano eruption. We’ll be looking at:
The geological characteristics of the Eldfell volcano
The scale of the eruption and the damage it wreaked
The cleanup operation and remarkable recovery of the island's community
Visiting the volcano cone
Other things to do in the wonderful Westman Islands
What type of eruption was Eldfell?
Eldfell meaning ´Fire Hill´ is a cone-shaped volcano, formed entirely during the 1973 eruption on the island of Heimaey. This is the only inhabited island of the island chain below Iceland, Vestmannaeyjar aka the Westman Islands. Lava, ash, and tephra (rock fragments) unexpectedly exploded from this new fissure and covered most of the island.
Although the eruption took everyone by surprise, tremors occurred in the days leading up to the eruption. However, since small earthquakes are a common occurrence throughout Iceland, it was not thought to be a problem. A fissure opened on January 23rd, growing to 2 km long and spewing lava up to 150 meters into the air.
This lava quickly covered most of the island, including a large part of the main town. The 5,000+ population of the island was quickly evacuated to the mainland within a day and no one was harmed. The town itself, however, suffered hugely. One-third of the houses had been completely destroyed and many more were heavily damaged.
Ash and rock covered the streets and a very long and difficult cleanup lay ahead. This, of course, couldn’t begin until the island was declared safe. The eruption lasted for just under six months, being declared officially over on July 3rd, 1973. The Eldfell mountain had grown to 200 meters (660 feet), making it one of the tallest features on Heimaey.
The Eldfell Volcano cleanup
Icelanders did not sit by idly while one of their towns (and main fishing ports) was being destroyed. An operation began within two weeks to attempt to divert the lava flow away from the town. Seawater was pumped and sprayed onto the edge of the lava flow to slow its spread, which proved effective.
By the time the eruption stopped, 7.3 million cubic meters of seawater had been pumped onto the eruption. The harbor and much of the town were no doubt saved as a result of these efforts. Even so, there was a lot of repair and construction work to be done when it ended.
Houses had to be repaired or completely rebuilt and the streets and harbor had to be cleared. Interestingly, the newly cooled lava actually improved the harbor, as well as extended the island’s size by 2 square kilometers. Within a year, fishing had returned to its normal levels of production.
Full recovery after the eruption
By 1975, about 80% of the island’s population had returned, and just as every cloud has a silver lining, so did the eruption! The heat that remains for many years after eruptions was utilized to heat homes, providing them with cheap heating and hot water for many years after the eruption.
Additionally, the tephra, which is a fragmented material that the eruption left behind, was used to extend the local airport’s runways and as landfill material. New homes were built on top of this landfill. Heimaey has long been fully recovered, due to the ingenuity and perseverance of Icelanders. As one of Iceland’s most crucial fishing ports, the significance of this cannot be overstated.
Is Eldfell an active volcano?
Eldfell is still classed as active, but there don’t seem to be any signs of a looming eruption. Grass now covers much of the lower part of the cone, planted by the locals. But this is still one of the active volcanoes in Iceland that is being closely monitored. If it shows signs of an imminent eruption, no doubt the island will be as swiftly evacuated as it was before.
Visiting Eldfell Volcano
If you’re heading down to the Westman Islands, you should absolutely take on the Edfell Volcano hike. It can be tricky in places, being largely covered in loose ash, but it only takes about 15-20 minutes to reach the top. From there, you'll have a great view of Heimaey and the rest of the islands.
Not only that, but you’ll also be standing on lava that’s less than 50 years old. The rock is still bright red and bare in many places, and lava bombs are dotted around. You can also walk all the way around the crater, which takes a couple of hours. You’ll be able to see the direction the lava flow took based on the patterns it left behind.
Having the chance to see the aftermath of a relatively recent Icelandic volcanic eruption is fascinating.
Heimaey is small, so you can walk from the island’s town to the volcano and around it in no time. Eldfell is one of many cones on the island and Helgafell is another popular hiking route.
The Eldheimar Museum
If you want to know more about the eruption while you’re on Heimaey, head to Eldheimar Museum. You can visit a home that was almost completely destroyed by the lava flow and learn about another island, Surtsey.
Surtsey, the southernmost island of the Westman Islands, was newly created by undersea eruptions from 1963-1967. Only approved scientists are permitted to visit this island, but its progress is carefully monitored and reported on.
Getting to the Westman Islands
From Reykjavík, jump in your rental car in Iceland and drive along the south coast to Landeyjahöfn. This is a journey of about 140 km (87 miles), taking just under two hours. From there, hop or drive onto the ferry that services the route from the mainland to the Islands.
The ferry must be booked in advance via the official website. The journey time is 40 minutes and costs ISK 2,000 ($16 USD) per adult, not including vehicle fees. During the summer, the ferry travels back and forth multiple times a day, but tickets sell out fast. The ferry also runs during the winter, but less frequently.
Other things to do in the Westman Islands
While you’re on the Westman Islands, don’t forget that you can also visit one of the largest puffin colonies in the world. Around 60% of the world’s Atlantic puffins live in Iceland during the summer, and many of them breed on Heimaey. Head to the cliffs to see thousands of these colorful birds catching fish and caring for their young.
The famous Elephant Rock is also located in the Westman islands, and there are boat tours available for those interested in seeing the island's incredible cliffs and rock formations.
Several accommodation choices are available on the island if you want a longer stay. The fish restaurants on the island are also very well renowned, with the freshest of catches served daily.
Eldfell - A great Iceland volcano vacation
Volcanic eruptions and earthquakes are a part of life for Icelanders, who have long since grown accustomed to them. This is not to say that their occurrence does not excite the locals. On the contrary, whenever an eruption happens, Icelanders flock to the site to witness the flow of lava up close.
If you’re heading to Iceland, be sure to visit the sites of previous eruptions. After all, any trip to Iceland would not be complete without a volcano sighting! And you never know, there could even be a real-life eruption for you to witness (from a safe distance, of course).
There’s little that is as amazing to see as naturally formed volcanic rock formations and live lava flow. Nature is certainly the world’s greatest artist.
To plan an Iceland volcano vacation and to find out more about Iceland’s incredible geology, check out these related articles: