School children in Heimaey. The island has about 4500 inhabitants.

The news of a volcanic eruption in Iceland and the lingering aftermath has had me thinking of our visit a few years ago to Heimaey, one of the Westman Island group off the southern coast of Iceland — the only one that is inhabited.

We took the ferry out to Heimaey, a trip of about four nautical miles, spent the night in a very nice little hotel, and then wandered all over the island and took a cruise around its outskirts.

The centerpiece of Heimaey is Eldfell, a volcano that erupted in January 1973, an event that continued until the following July. Besides the initial output of volcanic ash — an estimated 1.6 million cubic feet were blown onto the town — there was substantial flow of lava that threatened to close the island’s harbor.

A cluster of typical Icelandic buildings on Heimaey with Eldfell in the distance.

Overnight the whole population of Heimaey was evacuated, largely thanks to the fleet of fishing boats that was in the harbor at that time of year. If the lava had continued to flow unabated, it would have closed the narrow channel into the harbor which would have been disastrous to the fishing industry that supports the island’s economy. However, the islanders prevented that by pumping sea water onto the lava, redirecting the flow of the molten rock and causing much of it to solidify.

There was enormous damage to the town. Also, because of the lava flow, the length of the island grew from about 6 miles to about 8 miles. Ultimately, the residents returned and the town was restored. Video of the 1973 eruption is a THIS LINK.

A mural on an exterior wall of a building in Heimaey depicts the principal occupations of the residents.

Besides learning about the Eldfell event, I was preoccupied in Heimaey with the mindset of the people who live there. It’s human nature for a person to think of himself as standing at the center of all that is — even if intellectually he knows otherwise — and it’s a part of that conceit to wonder how anyone living on a tiny island in the North Atlantic could entertain such an idea. The people we met appeared content and cheerful, which seems counterintuitive to someone whose whole life has been spent in the New York-Philadelphia megapolis. I suggested to my companions that it would be an interesting experiment to relocate to Heimaey for, say, six months to see how it would affect one’s world view. They didn’t share my curiosity.

A panorama of Heimaey, the largest island in the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago, first settled in the ninth century AD.