Monday, October 10, 2005
Iceland, the only place to win the war againts the volcano eruption
There is one largish island, Heimaey, and 14 smaller ones — if they have grass, we were told, they are called islands, and people stick a few sheep on them to graze. If there is no grass, they are called rocks.
On the largest island is one town, Vestmannaeyjar, and one port which is a most important site in Iceland's critical fishing industry. This town has gained the distinction of being the only place in the world ever to successfully deflect a volcano.
All of Iceland is volcanic, and the main island, roughly the size of Virginia, is about 40 percent a desert of mossy lava fields. (I had to learn a whole new definition of the word "desert," as clearly there was no sand involved here.)
There are volcanic eruptions every four years or so, along with earthquakes, and the residents pretty much take them in stride.
But early on the morning of Jan. 23, 1973, all hell literally broke loose on Heimaey. A vast fissure split open on the eastern side of the island only 400 yards from the town, and a 350-foot volcano cone began to form, shooting tephra, or molten bombs, as it grew.
The people were awakened by police and fire sirens, and they fled to the harbor where they were safely evacuated on fishing boats. There were no casualties at that time.
The volcano continued to do its cruel thing, and by March the people realized their precious harbor was threatened by the flowing lava. This could not be allowed, as then the town would have no reason for existence, and the people were having none of that. This was home.
So they came up with the idea of pumping sea water on the steaming lava, supported by workers and equipment from other nations around the world. It wasn't easy, and they lost a few battles, but eventually they won the war.
And they not only saved the harbor, but found it improved. A sizable land mass was added to the island by the time the volcano finally spewed itself out in July, and it provided welcome shelter from prevailing winds.
The destruction, though, was horrific. Hundreds of homes were burned by molten lava and buried under ash. You can still see an odd chimney or gable sticking out of new mountains here and there.
The population was for the most part resolved, calm, and philosophical. Two thousand returned to the island as soon as it was safe, and others following in time.
The mayor, once he knew the harbor was saved, said they would just wait until the lava cooled and then build on top of it. And that's what they did.
Our cruise ship pulled into Heimaey Harbor early one August morning. We were taken on a bus tour of the island, and it began in a rather dramatic way.
People gather puffin eggs, despite the fact that the birds nest in formidable cliffs. So egg gatherers learn to swing on ropes, grab the eggs with one hand, and swing back to safety. Our bus driver was expert at this, as he proceeded to demonstrate on a "practice" cliff. We were impressed.
Then we went to a puffin nesting site, being forewarned that the grass leading to the cliff edge could be slippery. (He neglected to mention the vast piles of sheep plop we would encounter, but we soon figured that out by ourselves.)
There are some six million puffins in the Westmans, living on the average of 25 years. They arrive on Heimaey every April 15 and stay just long enough to raise a family, leaving in mid-August. (I don't know Icelanders do for eggs the rest of the year — I saw no chickens.)
The babies, called puffings, are quite simply abandoned by their parents, who clearly feel their work is done. The babies then get hungry and eventually head for the sea, where they're just fine.
But if they get distracted by lights and land in the town, they're hopelessly befuddled. So people traditionally stay up nights during this time rescuing puffings in cardboard boxes; in the mornings they take them to the sea and release them.
Icelanders eat puffins, and controlled hunting with long-handled nets — no guns — is allowed for a few summer weeks. The hunter must catch the birds in flight, but only returning to the cliffs, not leaving them. And if the puffins have food in their mouths, they must be freed, because that means they are feeding young.
I do admire a place that is so bird-sensitive, even if they do eat them.
Vestmannaeyjar is now a thriving town of 4,200 — they'd like another thousand or so to regain the pre-eruption population size. Fishing is still important, although imposed quotas have had an effect.
They have several local celebrations, such as Twelfth Night, the Puffin Ball and "The Festival," an annual entertainment and musical extravaganza.
There is adequate shopping (except for tourists; they are sadly lacking in acceptable souvenirs), an airport and a golf course, home of the popular Volcano Open.
They even have a downtown traffic light, although the residents don't really understand it and tend to avoid that street.
Mesmerizing place. Incredible people. Extraordinary experience.