Living with Fire Mountain

Lupines and harebells dot the green hillsides with purple, puffins dart and nestle in their burrows, and fishing boats muffle their coughing engines in and out of the harbor. 

In many ways, the grassy island of Heimaey is a perfect microcosm of Iceland. 

For two days in January of 1973, barely perceptible tremors quietly shook the island off the southeastern coast of Iceland. But at 2:00 in the morning on January 23, the unassuming fishing isle cracked apart.

Volcanic activity is a fact of life in Iceland. Less than an hour’s drive from the capital Reykjavik, the volcano Fagradalsfjall is oozing lava this very moment. Last year, the “Beautiful Valley Mountain,” as its name translates, erupted for six months. This August, the mountain’s heart chugged back to beating and resumed its slow, hot-blooded flow across grassy fields.

Most days—most years, even—volcanism doesn’t affect daily living in any profound way. But there are exceptions.

Heimaey, Iceland
Heimaey, Iceland

Gísli Pálsson didn’t believe the news when he heard his childhood isle of Heimaey was ripped open. But it was true, and it continued breaking and spitting molten rock for six months.

He was in Manchester at the time, studying for graduate school in anthropology. Now professor emeritus of University of Iceland, Pálsson spent his career studying different areas of Icelandic anthropology.

“Traditionally, social scientists and other scientists would divide things into planes,” Pálsson explained on the All Things Iceland podcast. “You had the material crust, and then you had societies and cultures established on top of it.”

But he believes life is more complex than that. To him, the dualism between nature and culture is contrived.

For ten years, the glowing pool of magma beneath Heimaey went unnoticed. But late that January night, the earth unfastened itself. Only 200 meters east of the village church, and less than a kilometer outside of town, the volcanic rift grew. And grew quickly, eventually fuming smoke and spitting lava from one end of the island to the other.

Helgafell, or “Holy Mountain,” was the isle’s original volcano, the hill that Pálsson remembers from childhood. It was historically inactive; it hadn’t erupted since runaway Irish slaves first settled the fishing port in 875 AD.

Now, Helgafell has a sister. The twin volcano of Eldfell, or “Fire Mountain.”  Visitors can walk the packed trail of ash that winds up its slope, inadvertently stepping over buried rooftops and magma-encased houses. Pálsson’s home is one of them, the bedroom where he was born set aflame by a fiery grenade of rock.

The Eldfell Volcanic Cone in Iceland
The Eldfell Volcanic Cone in Iceland

Leaning into the wind atop the summit of Eldfell, you can look across the whole fo the island. It’s so green. You can see the white boxes of the town’s buildings, and the modest airstrip that spans the breadth of the isle. Then you can look out into the fan of black, the dark ash and rock that still looks fresh, as if it spilled out just months ago. 

In the distance, beyond the surrounding sheer-cliffed islands, you can see the ice-capped peaks of Hekla and Eyjafjallajökull volcanoes brooding on the mainland.

“Those of us in disaster zones simply learn to live with it,” Pálsson writes in his book, Down to Earth. “We try to mitigate the major consequences of earthquakes, eruptions, or other natural disasters. We try to react sensibly to the risk. But people learn from experience.”

Heimaey is a success story. There had been attempts elsewhere, like Hawaii and Italy, to slow lava flows. It had never worked that well. But during the eruptions of 1973, University of Iceland professor Þorbjörn Sigurgeirsson suggested a different and daring tactic: cool down the leading edge of the lava flow. Let the rest of the lava build up behind it.

The results were slow, but they worked. Pumping up to 400 liters of sea water per second, the people of Iceland were able to manipulate the molten rock, blocking it even as it progressed down a residential street.

Beyond the slow, fiery consumption of houses, the largest fear was for the harbor itself. Heimaey was, and remains, a hugely productive fishing village. With cod, herring, mackerel, capelin, saithe, haddock, and lobster leaving their port and heading straight for European shores, the blockage of the harbor by lava would have devastated the town’s primary industry.

During the crisis and its aftermath, the people of Heimaey were cool and steady. According to Pálsson, it’s just the old fisherman culture: the belief that they can weather any storm.

Heimaey town aerial view from Eldfell volcano
Heimaey town aerial view from Eldfell volcano

Still, questions hung in the air in the wake of the eruptions and evacuations of the island: Could they return? If so, when? And on what terms?

“It’s a connection to the land,” Pálsson explained, when asked why people returned to the island. As soon as they could, people started coming back. Many had lost homes to flaming volcanic bombs or the slow march of lava. Others were more fortunate and only had to sweep away the ash.

But they plowed ash from the streets. It was used to level the rough terrain of the new-formed lava fields. Buildings were erected there. Where the old church used to be, a new one now stands. 

Today, a soccer field lies on the skirts of the old sister, Helgafell. Tourists climb Eldfell and touch its gradient of black, red, and orange rock. Geothermal energy stations harness the residual warmth of the two sister mountains. July 2023 will mark 50 years since the eruptions finally quieted.

Much remains unchanged. The harbor is still bustling, puffins still creak out their funny little calls. Grasses do have new hillsides of black ash to pioneer, but one day there’ll be lupines and harebells and buttercups there, too.

“Inevitably, our natural surroundings make their mark on our lives,” Pálsson writes. “As for myself, I am molded by a volcanic island. My life is shaped by rocks and magma.”

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