We tend to think of volcanoes as unstoppable forces of nature that we live next to at our own peril. Despite this, an ingrained human instinct to take control of our environment has sometimes pushed people to try to control volcanic events.

One of the most interesting stories about an attempt to control a volcanic eruption is recorded in John McPhee’s “The Control of Nature”. The story chronicles the attempts of the residents of a remote Icelandic island to prevent a lava flow from destroying their harbor – attempts that were ultimately successful.

Heimaey, which means “home island” in Icelandic, is the largest island of the Vestmannaeyjar Archipelago. The island’s economy is entirely dependent on the local fisheries. The natural harbor of the island, the only one in the region, provides a safe home base for the fishermen working in the area. That’s why, when an eruption of Eldfell, the island’s volcano, threatened to close off the harbor in 1973, locals sprung into action.

Rather than trying to protect the town, the locals focused all their efforts on preventing the harbor from being closed off. Fire trucks and pumps were set up in front of the advancing lava, and water was sprayed across the top of the flow.

A skeptical world watched the drama with bated breath. Between January and July, 1973, six million cubic meters of seawater were sprayed on the lava. In addition, walls and trenches intended to divert the water away from the harbor were constructed using bulldozers.

In the end, the locals were able to stop the lava flow, cooling an estimated 4 million cubic meters of lava into solid rock. The story is one of the greatest examples of a successful geoengineering project in history.

For a detailed and interesting geologic report on the lava-cooling project, take a look at this United States Geological Survey report.

To learn more about human attempts to control geologic forces, check out John McPhee’s book, “The Control of Nature”. In addition to the story of attempts to control the eruption of Heimaey, the book also describes the efforts of the US Army Corps of Engineers to control the Mississippi as well as work to contain debris flows that threaten the city of Los Angeles.

Many of John McPhee’s books cover geology and geologic processes. If you like “The Control of Nature”, check out “Annals of a Former World”, a compilation of McPhee’s detailed, humorous essays on geology.