Links of interest for

Iceland : Westman Islands


The Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar) are a group of 15 islands, rock pillars and skerries located off the south coast of Iceland. The islands are part of a young and still active submarine volcanic system, most of them coming into being 6-40,000 years ago. However, the youngest of the group, Surtsey, only grew from the sea floor in episodic eruptions from 1963-1967. The largest island, Heimaey, is 13 sq km and has a population of 4,080. The other islands are uninhabited although several have cabins where islanders stay when they go hunting for puffins, an activity that is still very much part of their traditional culture.

The islands are named after the Irish who were captured into slavery by the Norse Gaels. The old Norse word Vestmenn, literally 'Westmen', was applied to the Irish, and retained in Icelandic even though Ireland is more easterly than Iceland. Not long after Ingolfur Arnarson arrived in Iceland, his blood brother Hjorleifur was murdered by the slaves he had brought with him. Ingolfur tracked them down to Vestmannaeyjar and killed them all in retribution.

On June 20, 1627, in an event known as the Turkish abductions, the islands were captured by a fleet of 15 Barbary pirate ships from Algiers, under the guidance of Murat Reis who stayed there for 26 days. They enslaved 242 people and took them to Algiers where most of them spent the rest of their lives in bondage. One of the captives, Olafur Egilsson, later managed to return back and wrote a book about his experience.

There was a widespread tetanus epidemic on the island until the middle of the 19th century. In 1847 a Danish doctor was able to discover the source of contamination. Until then, the infant mortality rate was very high. In order to try to battle the disease, the first maternity hospital in Iceland was built on the island.

The archipelago came to international attention in January 1973 when a mile long crevice opened at the east side of Helgafell near the edge of town on Heimaey. The eruption lasted for six months. Most of the population were evacuated but those who stayed, together with volunteers from the mainland, battled successfully to halt progress of the hot flowing lava from blocking the harbour entrance by spraying it with cold seawater. Almost 400 homes, or one fourth of the town, were destroyed by the eruption either crushed by the lava flow or catching fire from flying lava bombs that broke through windows or swiftly melted through rooftops. Many houses also collapsed from the weight of ash that the volcano spewed forth.

Due to the flow of lava from the new mountain of Eldfell, the island increased in size by 2.2 The total amount of ash and lava that erupted was estimated to be about 250 million cubic metres. A large part of the town was completely engulfed and it took well over a year to dig much of the settlement out again. One small example of the tremendous teamwork that was used in this effort was the international legion of volunteers that had to hand shovel the entire cemetery to clear the headstones and gravesites. Since then people from all over the world have come to view the aftermath and remains of the catastrophe. There is even an archaeological dig project 'Pompei of the North' inviting visitors to help excavate up to 10 of the homes that still buried under the ash.

Renewable Energy & Eco Housing


When the volcanic eruption in Heimaey ceased in 1973, Sveinbjorn Jonsson from Reykavik proposed using the geothermal energy to heat up homes. At the beginning of 1974, Sveinbjorn installed a simple heat exchanger on the lava of Eldfell and pumped cold water through it. The water warmed instantly and was then used to heat up a nearby house. Towards the end of 1974 an experimental power plant went online and it provided heating for 25 houses as well as the hospital. The heating system was a closed loop system, the size of each utilisation area was 60x70m and in it were 9 holes used to capture steam. The steam was conducted into 6 heat exchanger complexes, each of which produced 0.8MW of thermal energy. Thus 5 MW of thermal energy was obtained from each of those 4,000 m2 fields.

After these successful experiments, major construction began in 1977 that would enable large portions of the town to be heated with thermal energy from the lava. A pumping station was built and from this the heated water was pumped into two distribution systems in the town. Running the thermal energy plant was difficult, new areas had to be constantly utilized resulting in high expenditures, and the lava itself cooled down. In 1988 thermal energy from the lava ceased and an electrode boiler was installed to produce steam to heat the water of the plant. Nonetheless, this was a unique event on a global scale, since geothermal energy from lava from a volcanic eruption had never been used before in heating houses.

The 25 August 1915 is considered the founding day of Vestmannaeyjar's electrical power station because the first diesel engine taken into use in Iceland occurred on that date. The engine was a Guldner that had an output of 50 HP and generated about 35 KW. A power station was later constructed after World War II with a capacity of around 4900 KW. After the first sea cable arrived in 1962, the station was used as a backup system until it was destroyed in the eruption of 1973. A second sea cable was laid down in 1974 with the back up system being seven Caterpillar machines that can still produce about 5 MW if required. In the aftermath of the volcano a new possibility presented itself in the form of using heat from the lava that flowed in the eruption - see insert, right.

HS Veitur now operates a district heating plant in the Westman Islands. An electrode boiler produces stream which is pumped into two 10 MW heat exchangers that heat up the water and is then pumped back into the distribution system. The water used to heat up the system is fresh water that runs from the Eyjafjall glacier, which is then pumped via underwater pipes to Vestmannaeyjar. The electricity used for producing the steam is from Landsvirkjun hydropower stations on the mainland. Along with this electrical power, thermal energy from the garbage incineration plant is also used together with the surplus heat from the fishmeal factories of the island's processing companies. Around 15% of the energy is produced this way. The length of the entire twofold distribution system is 500 km and the number of homes/residents connected is 1400.

In 2003 two undergraduate students won the National Contest for Young Scientists in Iceland with their project for a hydrogen house design. Given the weather data they obtained it was decided the best possible location for a prototype of this house to be built was on the Westman Islands. Iceland had been promoting the use of hydrogen as a fuel for many years but its dreams of becoming the world's first hydrogen-based economy were dashed by the world financial crisis that brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy. However, it is hoped such initiatives will not be stifled and encouraging that Carbon Recycling International signed a contract in December 2010 for construction of the first plant to produce renewable fuel for cars from CO2 emissions from a geothermal power station.

Waste Minimisation & Recycling

Since the 1970s Iceland has made considerable progress regarding waste management and their Environment Agency produced this report in 2006 and conducted a pilot study on packaging waste. A further report produced by the UN stated that in 1970 that the main method of waste disposal in Iceland was open-pit burning. Over 50 burning pits were in operation, close to one pit per municipality, and only three landfills. In 1990, six landfills and three incineration facilities were in operation and the burning pits were less than 50. But the biggest improvement came when Iceland joined the European Economic Area in 1994 and became obliged to implement EU legislation pertaining waste management. By 2003, open-pit burning had almost been eliminated, 29 landfills and seven incineration facilities were in operation, all of which by virtue of environmental permits. Since then, recycling and other ways of waste recovery have become more prominent. In 2007, about 583 000 tonnes of waste were generated in Iceland; thereof 177 000 of municipal waste, 343 000 tonnes of production waste, 10 000 tonnes of hazardous waste and 63 000 tonnes of other waste. Over 58% of that waste was recovered by various means, e.g. material recycling, composting and incineration with energy recovery, while 42% were disposed of at landfills. The proportion of the population that was served by collecting and managing waste was 100%.

Iceland has in excess of 318,000 inhabitants, about 200,000 of whom live in Reykjavik and its adjoining municipalities. Since 1991, the capital and six other municipalities have coordinated their solid waste disposal through an independent firm named SORPA, which the city and these municipalities jointly own and run. Iceland's authorities have set the goal of systematically reducing waste formation and channelling waste into reuse and recovery. The Act on Recycling Fees was passed in an effort to achieve this end, charging the Icelandic Recycling Fund with creating conducive economic conditions for reuse and recovery, lowering the volume of waste going into final disposal and ensuring the proper disposal of hazardous substances.

Water Management & Security

The drinking water of Vestmanneyjar is taken from two springs in the South Merkur area on mainland Iceland below Eyjafjall. The water is led from there, traveling a distance of 22 km, into a pumping station that then pumps the water to Vestmannaeyjar through two 13 km long underwater pipes. The first underwater pipe was laid down in 1968, the second one in 1971. Until 1968 the islanders only supply of freshwater was rainwater collected off their roofs and fed into wells near each home. Another special aspect to Vestmanneyjar is that the drinking water is sold through meters - even to homes. This is done to ensure there is no unnecessary waste of water. There were plans to lay a third pipeline in 1990, although the meters were installed to delay such construction. Other water distribution plants have set up such water meters to decrease water waste and to save on distributional construction costs.


In July 2007 Iceland's Minister of Transport announced that the government had decided not to construct a tunnel connecting the Westman Islands with the mainland as the estimated costs involved were too expensive. Instead an agreement had been reached with sea transportation company Eimskip that operates the Herjolfur Ferry for 15 additional trips every year. In July 2010 a new harbour at Landeyjahofn on the south coast was opened to replace the current docking point in Thorlakshofn and drastically cut the travel time to and from the islands from three hours to half an hour. However, within a couple of months the ferry could not sail into this new harbour as it had become too shallow from accumulated sand and the cost of dredging will be immense to keep it serviceable. As an alternative, Eagle Air has two flights a day to the Westman Islands from Reykjavik.

Sustainable Tourism & Niche Marketing

The tourist industry is a growing and flourishing one with most visitors coming in the summer. Amongst the attractions is one of Europe's best 18 hole golf courses with spectacular views which holds the annual Volcanic Open tournament, bird and whale watching, deep sea fishing, horse riding, cliff rapelling, hiking up volcanoes and walking over lava fields. In an area known as Skansinn down by the entrance to the harbour where the lava flow was stopped in 1973 there is a Norse timber church, the only one of its kind in Iceland, a gift from the people of Norway, and Landlyst, the second oldest building in the islands, now housing a small, but interesting medical museum. There is also a natural history museum with an aquarium, a folk museum within the library building and a community centre featuring documentary films about the Heimaey eruption and birth of Surtsey. Local companies like Eyjamyndir and Viking Tours offer coach and boat trips around the island including to a cove where Keiko, the killer whale and star of the film 'Free Willy' lived in captivity for several years.

The islands are best known in Iceland for their yearly "national festival" which attracts a good portion of the nation's youth. In 1874 when Icelanders thronged to Pingvellir to celebrate the country's constitution, bad weather forced the islanders to stay home. As ever unwilling to miss a good party, they simply held their own. This was such a resounding success that it has now grown to become the largest outdoor festival in Iceland and broke all records in 2009 when between 13,500 and 14,000 people attended. Held in a natural amphitheatre on the first weekend in August it provides food and entertainment of all description, including the traditional bonfire, fireworks and the famous hillside sing-along.

Music is very much a part of the islands cultural inheritance with folksongs being an inseperable part of every inhabitant's upbringing. They are frequently sung on all sorts of social occasions especially on the weekend following 3 July, the day in 1973 when the eruption was officially declared at an end. There is a thriving music school, choirs and bands of various genres. The need for self sufficiency has also made its mark on the dramatic arts with the local amateur theatre company staging several plays and other events each year. There are numerous works of art around and outside the town including sculptures by well known artists and a number of exhibitions held every year by locals and visitors from the mainland alike. Finally, athletic activities play an immense role in the islands cultural life and in particular their soccer and handball teams who have made their names known far and wide.

Biodiversity & Protected Areas

The puffin colony in Vestmannaeyjar is the largest in the world with some 1,300,000 nesting pairs but suffering from a major decline in numbers as these two videos and recount. The population has decreased by 24% in only four years according to counts and studies made by Dr Erpur Snaer Hansen, Director of Ecological Research at the South Iceland Nature Centre.

The 2009 breeding season was significantly delayed and it would seem that very few chicks have hatched and survived due to a lack of food. Puffins rely on sandeels and other small fish for survival that in turn need plankton for food. But due to climate change increased sea temperatures have led to a marked decrease in plankton levels and also their distribution thus affecting the range of sandeels and food intake of seabird colonies around the North Atlantic as this report from the UK indicates.

Traditionally the islanders have had a very close relationship with the puffins, both hunting and protecting them. Children still help thousands of lost fledglings take to the skies for the first time every year. Older residents catch birds using nets attached to the end of long poles. Only the immature birds and non-breeders that circle above the cliffs are caught. The breeding birds that fly directly to and from their holes are left to feed their young. The mean annual puffin harvest is about 100,000 birds and calls have been made to ban the hunt altogether for a few years but that decision must be made by the local authorities. It is believed that only about 3,000 puffins were caught in the 2008 after the number of hunting days was cut down to ten.

Surtsey was formed in a submarine volcanic eruption that was first noticed on 14 November 1963 and ended on 5 June 1967. The island was declared a nature reserve in 1965, while volcanic activity was still in progress. The protected area was expanded in 2006 and today it covers the entire Surtsey volcano above and below sea level, a total of 65 sq km. On 7 July 2008 Surtsey was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List for its protection and for providing a unique scientific record of the process of colonisation of land by plants, animals and marine organisms.

Seeds and plant fragments were found on the beaches of Surtsey as early as 1964; some were collected and allowed to germinate in laboratories. The first organisms found were closely related to the sea – microscopic algae and bacteria – while the first higher plant, sea rocket, was found in 1965. It grew just above the tidemark, but was quickly choked by pumice and died. However, plant colonisation had begun, and only seven years after the eruption ten species of vascular plants that still exist there had colonised the island. The shore community was the first plant association to become resident. Even between eruptions, seabirds were seen alighting on Surtsey. Black guillemots and fulmars became the first bird species to nest on the island in 1970. For the first 30 years, only seabirds bred there.

Scientists quickly realised that a whole chapter in evolution could be read on Surtsey, including land formation and the colonisation, succession and decline of life forms. Whereas at first the island soil consisted only of volcanic ash, lacking in nutrients, a major change occurred when a gull colony became established in the middle of the eighties, since the gulls brought nutrients to create conditions for numerous plant and invertebrate species. Invertebrates typify the great impact of the gull colony, as prior to that time only simple insect communities had existed in relation to sea-borne carcasses and driftwood. Now a new phase has begun in the biological history of Surtsey. The latest higher plants to have colonised the island generally grow in developed plant communities, and terrestrial birds such as greylag geese, snow buntings and meadow pipits have started nesting there.

Since 1965 private visits to Surtsey and diving are banned unless authorised by the Environment Agency of Iceland. This restriction is to prevent importation of organisms to the island by humans. However, all tourists are free to sail around the island or take sightseeing flights over it. Experts and enthusiasts interested in monitoring and protecting the island founded the Surtsey Research Society in 1965. Its members have built facilities and constructed a helipad to improve conditions for researchers on the island. In addition, the Society takes regular aerial photos of the island and publishes the results of scientific investigations in the Surtsey Report.

Integrated Development Planning

In earlier times the inhabitants of Vestmannaeyjar subsisted on farming cattle and sheep in addition to fishing. Today there is no one on the islands that makes their livelihood by farming, but a few people keep sheep as a pastime. Today's economy is built on catching and processing fish. Vestmannaeyjar has the largest fishing industry in Iceland with 15% of the total catch, though the population of the islands is only 2% of the nation. Two large and several smaller freezing plants process the fish that is sent abroad fresh, frozen or salted. Two fishmeal processing plants and one cod-liver oil factory also make products for export. A large fleet of trawlers and smaller boats supply the factories with fish. Apart from local vessels about 600 ships come to port annually and there are facilities for ferrying passengers from large cruise liners.

The town on Heimaey had to be virtually rebuilt following the volcanic eruption in 1973 and the level of infrastructure and services is impressive. There are four pre-primary schools, two primary schools, an art school, and a comprehensive school that also offers industrial/vocational education. There is a hospital, a new home for senior citizens, sports centre, swimming pool and four football pitches.

The Vestmannaeyjar Research Centre was opened in October 1994 and incorporates, under the same roof, nine independent establishments to encourage multi-disciplinary research and development in cooperation with local industry. They are:

Development Centre of South Iceland
Directorate of Labour - South Coast Regional Office
Environment Agency of Iceland - Surtsey Office
Environmental and Public Health Authorities of South Iceland
Marine Research Institute
Matis - Food Research, Innovation & Safety
South Iceland Nature Centre
University of Iceland
Viska Educational Centre

Climate Change Mitigation & Adaptation Measures

In 2007 the Vestmannaeyjar lighthouse keeper, Oskar Sigurdsson, was awarded an Environmental Hero Award from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for his volunteer work in collecting nearly 600 air samples at the Storhofdi lighthouse over 15 years. These samples enabled NOAA to produce a time series of carbon dioxide and other trace gas measurements of relatively clean air coming off the Atlantic Ocean. This record of measurements was important because they helped establish the 'background' levels of these climatically important gases before the air passes over the European continent and are used by scientists worldwide to study the carbon cycle and global climate change.

The impacts of climate change are already being evidenced on Vestmannaeyjar itself with decline of the puffin population and the fishing industry having to catch mackerel rather than other species that have moved from their traditional feeding grounds. On the mainland an emerging movement of farmers are capitalizing on global warming to grow new crops such as barley and wheat.

Arborg and Vik in southern Iceland have been chosen as pilot sites in a new multi-national three-year project, known as CoastAdapt to help North Atlantic communities understand and implement ways of adapting to climate change. Following a series of workshops and seminars a range of tools and services will be developed with the objective of building long-term community resilience.


Dr Erpur Snaer Hansen, Director of Ecological Research, South Iceland Nature Centre
Sigurjon Ingi Ingolfsson, Sector and Energy Accounting Chief, HS Veitur
Pall Marvin Jonsson, Director, Vestmannaeyjar Research Centre
Olafur Por Snorrason, Executive Director of Environmental Issues & Public Works,
Vestmannaeyjar City Hall