Laki: the forgotten volcano

Posted on 06/07/2013


Tomorrow is the 230th anniversary of a volcanic eruption that you’ve probably never heard of, but that changed the history of science and the history of Europe. On the morning of June 8, 1783, the ground ripped open in south-central Iceland and began spewing fountains of fire into the air. This was the eruption of Laki, a volcanic fissure system that over the course of eight months would pour out nearly 15 cubic kilometers — cubic kilometers! — of lava, plus more than 100 million tons of poisonous gas. In the annals of natural disasters, it was pretty much one of the worst days ever.

An artist's illustration of the Laki fire fountains of 1783. Credit: Life on Fire, by Saint Thomas Productions.

An artist’s illustration of the Laki fire fountains of 1783. Credit: Life on Fire, by Saint Thomas Productions.

I first heard about Laki in the summer of 2010, when I visited Iceland in the wake of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption that grounded European air traffic. I ended up hanging out with various volcanologists and geologists, and wrote a story for Science News about volcanoes — like Eyjafjallajökull — that erupt under ice. Around 8 p.m. one summer evening, the Icelandic GPS expert who was taking me on his field rounds waved nonchalantly off to the east and said “oh yes, over there is where the Laki eruption took place in 1783.”

And that was about as much as I thought about Laki until that fall, when my husband and I had dinner with one of the most interesting planetary geologists I know, Lindy Elkins-Tanton. Over dinner with her mathematician husband at Boulder’s Brasserie Ten Ten, Lindy told us about the poisonous gases that Laki had sent swirling over Europe. It was, in essence, a giant cloud of pollution that settled over the continent for weeks.

laki signpost

On Iceland’s ring road. Credit: A. Witze.

From England to Germany to France, everyone from scholars to peasants wondered at the “dry fog” that had settled across the landscape. It burned their eyes and choked their throats, and sometimes it withered plants and etched brass surfaces, as if it were full of acid. Because, of course, it was. Laki had spit out 122 million tons of sulfur dioxide.

In his tranquil gardens in Selborne, England, naturalist Gilbert White complained about “the peculiar haze, or smoky fog, that prevailed for many weeks.” In Le Havre, France, observers noted how the particles scattered the sun’s rays: “We could look at [the sun] without getting blinded two hours before sunset, as it was then red as if we were seeing it through smoked glass.” The haze persisted for months, blanketing the countryside with a sense of lingering dread.

In the end, Laki’s effects would spread all the way around the northern hemisphere. Volcanic fluorine settled across the lush pastures of Iceland, poisoning the grass and killing livestock and leading to one of the worst famines in the country’s history. Farther afield, volcanic sulfur first choked people on the ground across Europe — and later, by scattering away the sun’s incoming rays, led to climate change across the Northern Hemisphere for years. Laki cooled parts of the planet in ways that likely shut down the flow of the Nile, and that may have contributed to famine as far away as Japan. Some have gone so far as to attribute the French Revolution of 1789, in part, to Laki’s role in crop failures across France throughout the 1780s. The eruption’s official death toll is around 10,000, but if you add in the distant famines that may be linked to Laki’s climatic effects, something closer to several million people may have died.

laki crater chain

The chain of craters left behind by the Laki eruption. Credit: A. Witze.

Yet for all its destructiveness, the 1783-84 Laki eruption was also a crucible in the birth of modern volcanology. Benjamin Franklin witnessed the “peculiar haze” in Paris, where he was serving as ambassador from the newly minted United States, and suggested that it might all be thanks to an eruption in  far-off Iceland. Other scientists, including M. Morgue de Montredon and Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein, independently proposed the same volcano-fog link. It was the first time anyone had recognized that a remote volcano could have such long-distance effects.

There’s just so much great material here. That’s why my husband and I have written a popular book about the Laki eruption, to be published by Profile Books of London in early 2014. It’s tentatively titled Island on Fire (the Amazon UK pre-order site is here — and not to be confused with the other Island of Fire, which has much better cover art). In the meantime, you can get your Laki fix by checking out Erik Klemetti’s Wired blog post on the science of the eruption, or a piece I wrote last year about the Icelanders affected. 

Which is, after all, where it all began. As the most famous chronicle of the eruption relates: Around midmorn on Whitsun, June 8th of 1783, in clear and calm weather a black haze of sand appeared to the north of the mountains nearest the farms of the Siða area….

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