National Geographic : 1973 Jul
refuses to die. On January 23, 1973, the ground had split apart on Heimaey, an oceanic knob two miles wide and four miles long, largest bump of land in the Westmann Islands (map, below). The eruption opened a mile-long gash at the edge of the quiet fishing town of Vest mannaeyjar (vEST-mun-ayer). Although not a single human life was lost until much later, the rain of fire forced evacuation of the some 5,000 inhabitants of Iceland's most important fishing port and threatened a severe blow to the economy of the nation. If the eruption did not soon subside, the entire harbor might be closed by lava, cutting the economic lifeline of the town. Iceland depends on fish exports for 80 percent of its foreign exchange, and a tenth of those ex ports are processed in Vestmannaeyjar. Now, ten days after the eruption began, the Esja rounded a rock cliff to enter the harbor, and before us stood a mountain afire (pages 48-49). Groaning, bellowing, it spat flaming salvos of molten rock that splashed in glow ing driblets down the cone's black sides. Dwarfed by this furnace towering 700 feet above the sea, Vestmannaeyjar nestled at its foot, with outlying houses already buried be neath lava and ash. Ironically, the islanders at first called their blazing hell Kirkjufell, or "Church Mountain," because it opened near the site of Heimaey's earliest Christian shrine. Official designation would come much later. Islanders Sing Against the Thunder Barely a word was spoken on the afterdeck, where I stood as the ship slipped between two breakwaters half a mile from the inferno and eased next to a pier. So compelling was the spectacle that, once ashore, I found sleep im possible, despite its being past midnight. With a longtime Westmann Islander, Pall Steingrimsson, I began a night walk through Seemingly at hell's gates, sheep stand placidly as fountains of mag ma thunder at the edge of their pas ture. Foreshortening effect of a telephoto lens makes it appear that the animals are at the very brink of the new volcano, dubbed Kirkjufell. 2 67------ ARCTICCIRCLE Atlantic Surtsey" Ocean HEIMA WESTMANN ISLANDS Alfsey Lighthoui Brandr Bliste q srandur. sits o Sudurey Lava t Lava in the and it of wh Most of Sur began Hellisey Faxasker &. r on a boiler plate, Iceland n an underground inferno. bursting through a great crack sea floor created the mainland s offshore Westmann Islands, ich Heimaey is the largest. recent addition is the island tsey, raised by eruptions that a decade ago.