Location of the municipality
|Postal code(s)||900, 902|
The largest island, Heimaey, has a population of 4,135. The other islands are uninhabited, although six have single hunting cabins. Vestmannaeyjar came to international attention in 1973 with the eruption of Eldfell volcano, which destroyed many buildings and forced a months-long evacuation of the entire population to mainland Iceland. Approximately one fifth of the town was destroyed before the lava flow was halted by application of 6.8 billion litres of cold sea water.
The Vestmannaeyjar archipelago is considered young in geological terms. The islands lie in the Southern Icelandic Volcanic Zone and have been formed by eruptions over the past 10,000–12,000 years. The volcanic system consists of 70–80 volcanoes both above and below the sea.
Vestmannaeyjar comprises the following islands:
- Heimaey (13.4 square kilometres; 5.2 sq mi)
- Surtsey (1.4 square kilometres; 0.54 sq mi)
- Elliðaey (0.45 square kilometres; 0.17 sq mi)
- Bjarnarey (0.32 square kilometres; 0.12 sq mi)
- Álsey (0.25 square kilometres; 0.097 sq mi)
- Suðurey (0.20 square kilometres; 0.077 sq mi)
- Brandur (0.1 square kilometres; 0.039 sq mi)
- Hellisey (0.1 square kilometres; 0.039 sq mi)
- Súlnasker (0.03 square kilometres; 0.012 sq mi)
- Geldungur (0.02 square kilometres; 0.0077 sq mi)
- Geirfuglasker (0.02 square kilometres; 0.0077 sq mi)
- the islands Hani, Hæna, Hrauney and the skerry Grasleysa are called Smáeyjar (small islands).
Total: 16.3 square kilometres (6.3 sq mi)
There are 15 islands, and about 30 rock stacks and skerries. All the islands have been built up in submarine eruptions and consist of alternating layers of palagonite tuff and lava. The oldest geological formations are in the northern part of Heimaey ("Home Island"), the largest island and the only one of the group that is inhabited. Basalt columns can be seen in many places, and the sea has eroded the soft rock of the shoreline and scooped out many picturesque coves and grottos, which are one of the special features of the islands.
A submarine eruption took place southeast of Hellisey in 1896. The next eruption began on 14 November 1963. It lasted about four years – one of the longest in Icelandic history – and gave birth to Surtsey, the 15th island in the group. In the eruption of 1973 that lasted for 155 days, Heimaey grew by about 2.1 square kilometres (0.81 sq mi). The Westman Islands group is about 38 kilometres (24 mi) long and 29 kilometres (18 mi) broad, the closest point lying about 8 kilometres (5.0 mi) from the mainland.
There is generally very little snow, but a lot of rain. Owing to this mini-climate, returning migrant birds are often first seen in the spring and they set out from the islands in the autumn. All of Iceland's sea-birds can be found in Vestmannaejar: the Guillemot, the Gannet, the Kittiwake, the Iceland Gull, and the Puffin, the Westman Islands' emblem, which is the most plentiful species. More than 30 species of birds nest in their millions in the cliffs and grassy ledges, and other species make irregular appearances.
There are about 150 plant species in the flora of the islands, and about 80 types of insect that have been identified. The waters around the Westman Islands contain some of the North Atlantic's richest fishing grounds. The two main commercially exploited species in Iceland, Cod and Haddock, are found in abundance in Vestmannaeyjar. Other species, such as flat-fish, herring and capelin, are also commonly harvested as they migrate through the area in the autumn and winter. Lobsters and ocean perch are found in large numbers in the deep water to the southeast of the islands. Seals, small types of whale and other marine species are also present in large numbers around the islands.
It is often very windy in the islands, and the highest wind speed measured in Iceland (61 metres per second;140 mph) was recorded in Stórhöfði. The main wind directions are easterly and south-easterly. The islands enjoy the country's highest average annual temperature, the Gulf Stream having a strong warming effect, especially in winter.
|Climate data for Vestmannaeyjar|
|Average high °C (°F)||3.4
|Daily mean °C (°F)||1.3
|Average low °C (°F)||−0.6
|Precipitation mm (inches)||158.2
|Avg. precipitation days (≥ 1.0mm)||18.2||16.7||17.0||15.5||13.5||14.1||13.2||14.4||15.7||18.5||15.5||17.7||190|
|Source: Hong Kong Observatory|
History and name
The islands are named after Irish slaves who had been captured into slavery by Norsemen. The Old Norse word Vestmenn, literally "Westmen", was applied to the Irish, and retained in Icelandic even though Ireland is further east than Iceland. (The Norse Gaels often called themselves in contrast Ostmen or Austmenn – "East-men".)
Not long after Ingólfur Arnarson arrived in Iceland, his blood brother Hjörleifur was murdered by the slaves he had brought with him. Ingolfur tracked them down to Vestmannaeyjar and killed them all in retribution, hence the name Vestmannaeyjar (the islands of the west men). This has been speculated to have taken place in 875 AD.
On 16 July 1627, in an event known as the Turkish abductions, the islands were captured by a fleet of 3 ships of Barbary Pirates from Algiers, who stayed there until 19 July under the control of Ottomans. They had earlier raided in Eastern Region and another raid under the command of Murat Reis from Salé in Morocco had taken place in Grindavík in June of that year. The pirates enslaved 234 people from the islands and took them to Algiers (after a voyage which lasted 27 days) where most of them spent the rest of their lives in bondage. One of the captives, Lutheran minister Ólafur Egilsson, managed to return in 1628 and wrote a book about his experience. In 1636, ransom was paid for 34 of the captives and most of them returned to Iceland. After this, a small fort was built on Skansinn, and an armed guard was established to keep watch form the mountain Helgafell for the approach of ships.
For centuries, the people of the Westman Islands had a hard struggle for existence, living from fishing and wild birds and their eggs, which they gathered in the cliffs and rock stacks offshore. At the end of the 19th century, when the population was about 600, great changes took place in the lifestyle of the islanders. In 1904, the first motorised boat was purchased, and more followed soon afterwards. By 1930, the population had risen to 3,470. The Westman islands have always been in the forefront of developments in fishing and seafood-processing, and are the most productive fishing centre in the country. Shortage of water was also a problem for a long time, but a great improvement took place in 1968 when a pipeline was laid.
The area is very volcanically active, like the rest of Iceland. There were two major eruptions in the 20th century: the eruption in 1963 that created the new island of Surtsey, and the Eldfell eruption of January 1973, which created a 200-meter-high mountain where a meadow had been, and caused the island's 5,000 inhabitants to be temporarily evacuated to the mainland.
In 2000, Heimaey stave church, a replica of the Haltdalen Stave Church containing a replica of the St Olav frontal, was erected at Skansinn as a gift from the Norwegian government to Iceland, commemorating the conversion of Iceland to Christianity a thousand years before.
- The islands are famed in Iceland for their major annual festival, Þjóðhátíð (National Festival), which attracts thousands of people. The festival was originally held in 1874, concurrent with Iceland's celebration commemorating the 1,000th anniversary of the inhabitation of Iceland. Vestmannaeyjar residents had been prevented by weather from sailing to the mainland for the festivities and thus celebrated locally.
- From 1998 to 2003 the island of Heimaey was home to Keiko the killer whale, star of Free Willy (1993).
- The film The Deep (2012), based on true events, is set on and around the island.
- The islands and their history of volcanic activity play a major role in James Rollins' seventh Sigma Force novel, The Devil Colony (2011).
- The islands feature as the primary location in Yrsa Sigurðardóttir's novel Ashes to Dust, which uses the 1973 eruption of Eldfell as a key element in the plot.
- Geography of Iceland
- Glaciers of Iceland
- Iceland plume
- List of lakes of Iceland
- List of islands off Iceland
- List of volcanoes in Iceland
- List of rivers of Iceland
- Volcanism in Iceland
- Waterfalls of Iceland
- Framhaldsskólinn í Vestmannaeyjum
- "Westman Islands". Icelandic Tourist Board. Retrieved 13 April 2014.
- Taylor Kate Brown (11 September 2014). "How do you stop the flow of lava?". BBC news. Retrieved 14 September 2014.
- "VESTMANNAEYJAR: Volcanic Activity". Nordic Adventure Travel. Retrieved 21 January 2014.
- "Climatological Information for Akureyri, Iceland". Hong Kong Observatory.
- „Hvað gerðist í Tyrkjaráninu?". Vísindavefurinn, retrieved on 26 February 2012. (In Icelandic.)
- "The Travels of Reverend Ólafur Egilsson". Reisubok.net. Retrieved 13 April 2014.
- Paul Torvik Nilsen, 'Colourful Middle Ages', Tell'us: Science in Norway (December 2001), 6-9.
- "The Festival". Visitwestmanislands.com. Retrieved 13 April 2014.
- "The Devil Colony: A Sigma Force Novel". JamesRollins.com. p. 31.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Vestmannaeyjar.|
- Vestmannaeyjar travel guide from Wikivoyage
- Official website
- Info website about the Westman Islands
- Picture gallery from www.islandsmyndir.is
- Heimaey (the volcano)