January 2015

Can you stop a lava flow?

Throughout history villages and towns have been threatened by the advance of lava flows. People can generally outpace a lava flow but sometimes lava endangers people’s homes and livelihoods. If a lava flow was heading towards your home is there anything you could do to stop it? This month we will take a look at some historical lava flow events and discuss the methods used in an attempt to control nature.

Heimaey 1973

The eruption of a volcano on the Island of Heimaey, Iceland, in 1973 is perhaps the most famous example of man versus lava. During this eruption huge lava flows threatened to engulf the town of Vestmannaeyjar and block off the towns harbour from the open sea [1].

Lava entering Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland in 1973 [2].

In an attempt to prevent the flow from entering the town earthen debris barriers were constructed to stall the spread of lava. Unfortunately the lava over topped these barriers and continued to consume the edge of the town and advance towards the harbour.

As the lava started to build out into the Harbour water was pumped onto the flow in an attempt to cool it and halt its progress. To begin with this was done using fire hoses, though these were not powerful enough to reach the upper part of the lava flow which continued to advance [1].

Boats were used to continuously pump gallons of seawater onto the leading edge of the lava flow [1]. This had a cooling effect on the lava causing it to gradually solidify. In addition to this large pipe constructions, with a greater pumping capacity, were flown in from the US and mainland Iceland, and the lava was eventually stopped before it completely closed off the harbour [1].

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