An erupting volcano spouting ash over a town on a small island

The Heimaey 1973 eruption unleashed an inferno as an erupting fissure opened at the edge of town during the middle of the night, rapidly engulfing houses in its path. Photo by Kristinn Benediktsson.

50-year anniversary of the Heimaey eruption in 1973: A Story of Resilience and Recovery.

The Heimaey eruption of 1973 was a significant event in Iceland's history. It occurred on the island of Heimaey, part of Iceland's Vestmannaeyjar archipelago. Lasting from January 23 until July 3, 1973, the eruption led to the evacuation of the island's entire population and caused extensive damage to the town of Vestmannaeyjar. Despite the devastating impact of the eruption, many residents chose to return and rebuild their homes and community. This summer, the islanders will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the eruption's end, commemorating the resilience and recovery of the island and its people.

An aerial view of an intense volcanic fissure spewing large fire fountains. The overtowering eruption is burying houses at the front.

The Heimaey 1973 eruption unleashed an inferno as an erupting fissure opened at the edge of town, rapidly engulfing houses in its path. Photo by Elsa G. Vilmundardóttir

A wall of fire suddenly appeared

Before the 1973 eruption, Helgafell, the volcano on Heimaey, was considered dormant, with no recorded activity for around 5900 years. However, on the night of January 22, a series of mild tremors hinted at the catastrophe to come. Despite these signs, the limited earthquake monitoring capabilities in 1973 led to a misplacement of the epicenter further north, leaving the islanders unprepared for the eruption. The islanders were awakened at 1:55 a.m. on January 23, 1973, when a 1.6 kilometer (1 mile) long fissure opened up at the edge of town and started spewing lava and ash, transforming the peaceful night into an inferno.

A swift evacuation with the island's fishing fleet.

As the island's police and fire brigade sounded the alarm, the residents rushed to the harbor. Thanks to a recent storm, the island's fishing fleet was in port for a swift evacuation within a few hours. While a handful of volunteers stayed behind to perform essential tasks, scientists and journalists arrived to investigate and document the event. Approximately 400 buildings were destroyed or buried by lava flows and ashfall during the eruption, and the island's land area increased by 2.24 square kilometers (0.86 square miles) due to the lava flows. The eruption also created a new volcanic cone called Eldfell, or "Fire Mountain" in Icelandic.

Firemen with water hoses combatting an active lava front.

By pumping seawater onto the lava front, people managed to halt and redirect the flow path of the lava, thereby saving vital infrastructure on the island. Photo by Kristinn Benediktsson.

Saving the Harbor: A Battle against Lava

The harbor of Heimaey was – and remains – vital to the island's economy. As the eruption threatened to fill the harbor with lava, residents implemented an innovative solution to preserve it. They established an extensive network of pipes and pumps to spray seawater onto the lava, slowing its advance and redirecting its flow. This remarkable endeavor, involving 6.2 million tons of seawater, successfully saved the harbor.

The award-winning Eldheimar Museum captures the story

The Eldheimar museum opened in 2014, and is dedicated to the Heimaey eruption, its impact on the island, and the recovery process. The museum provides a unique opportunity for visitors to learn about the eruption, view artifacts, and explore the partially excavated remains of homes buried under the lava and ash. The museum highlights the resilience and resourcefulness of the island's inhabitants during and after the eruption.

Houses partially buried in volcanic ash as people shovel off the accumulated ash from their roofs.

The inhabitants and volunteers showed remarkable resilience and resourcefulness during and after the Heimaey eruption. Photo by Elsa G. Vilmundardóttir

Commemorating the 50th Anniversary

The 50th anniversary of the Heimaey eruption will be marked with special festivities this year. The annual Goslokahátíð (eruption end) festival will be more elaborate than ever, with a four-day celebration from July 3 to 9. The island will host a range of events and activities to honor the resilience of its people and their remarkable efforts to rebuild their community after the devastating eruption. Both tourists and locals are expected to attend, paying tribute to the island's history and recovery.

Link to the Birth of Surtsey Island in 1963

The Heimaey eruption has a connection to another significant volcanic event in the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago: the birth of Surtsey Island. Surtsey, a new island formed by volcanic activity, emerged from the ocean between November 14, 1963, and June 5, 1967. Surtsey is now a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its importance as a pristine natural laboratory for studying ecological succession and colonization. The Heimaey 1973 eruption involved more evolved magma and established Heimaey as a central volcano within the Vestmannaeyjar volcanic system. This young volcanic system continues to shape the landscape of Iceland and provides a unique opportunity to study the geological processes of volcanic activity.

An aerial view capturing multiple green islands emerging from the sea

The Vestmannaeyjar islands are easily accessible by an electric car ferry from the main coast of Iceland

Visit Vestmannaeyjar islands

The Westman Islands can be easily reached in just half an hour by electric ferry from Landeyjahöfn. The islands are a treasure trove of natural beauty, cultural heritage, and outdoor adventure. Visitors will find plenty to explore, from the award-winning Eldheimar Museum and the Surtsey Visitor Center to the abundant birdlife and enchanting landscapes.

The Westman Islands are renowned for being home to the largest puffin colony in Iceland and hosting the Sealife Trust's beluga whale sanctuary. Nature lovers will have numerous hiking options available on the islands, as well as boat tours that allow you to experience the local marine life up close.

Foodies will also find something to savor on the Westman Islands, with diverse dining options. You can sample local specialties and even visit the local brewery for a taste of the island's signature beers. Accommodation options are also varied, ensuring that you can find the perfect place to stay.

For more information on what the Westman Islands have to offer, check out the local travel web Whether you're interested in volcanos and geology, history, wildlife, or outdoor adventure, the Westman Islands are a must-visit destination you don’t want to miss.

An erupting volcano spouting ash over a town on a small island

The Heimaey 1973 eruption endured for over 5 months, resulting in the destruction of 400 houses. Despite the devastation, the majority of the residents chose to return to the island. Photo by Kristinn Benediktsson

Key numbers related to the 1973 Heimaey eruption:

  1. Start Date: January 23, 1973
  2. End Date: July 3, 1973
  3. Duration: Approximately 5 months and 10 days
  4. Fissure Length: 1.6 kilometers (1 mile)
  5. Lava Flow Coverage: Around 3.3 square kilometers (1.27 square miles)
  6. Land Area Increase: 2.24 square kilometers (0.86 square miles)
  7. Buildings Destroyed or Buried: Approximately 400
  8. Population Evacuated: Around 5,000
  9. Fatalities: 1
  10. Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI): 3 (indicating a moderate eruption with a noticeable impact on the surroundings)
The 1973 Heimaey eruption