Icelandic fallout

It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.
– J.R.R. Tolkien

This dramatic photo of the Eyjafjallajokull volcanic eruption has been circulating on the Internet today, the second on which all air traffic across the UK and northern Europe has been halted.  This morning  The Guardian reminds us of the last time that an Icelandic volcanic eruption disrupted life in Europe:

Just over 200 years ago an Icelandic volcano erupted with catastrophic consequences for weather, agriculture and transport across the northern hemisphere – and helped trigger the French revolution. The Laki volcanic fissure in southern Iceland erupted over an eight-month period from 8 June 1783 to February 1784, spewing lava and poisonous gases that devastated the island’s agriculture, killing much of the livestock. It is estimated that perhapsa quarter of Iceland’s population died through the ensuing famine.

Then, as now, there were more wide-ranging impacts. In Norway, the Netherlands, the British Isles, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, in North America and even Egypt, the Laki eruption had its consequences, as the haze of dust and sulphur particles thrown up by the volcano was carried over much of the northern hemisphere. Ships moored up in many ports, effectively fogbound. Crops were affected as the fall-out from the continuing eruption coincided with an abnormally hot summer. A clergyman, the Rev Sir John Cullum, wrote to the Royal Society that barley crops “became brown and withered … as did the leaves of the oats; the rye had the appearance of being mildewed”.

The British naturalist Gilbert White described that summer in his classic Natural History of Selborne as

“an amazing and portentous one … the peculiar haze, or smokey fog, that prevailed for many weeks in this island, and in every part of Europe, and even beyond its limits, was a most extraordinary appearance, unlike anything known within the memory of man.  The sun, at noon, looked as blank as a clouded moon, and shed a rust-coloured ferruginous light on the ground, and floors of rooms; but was particularly lurid and blood-coloured at rising and setting. At the same time the heat was so intense that butchers’ meat could hardly be eaten on the day after it was killed; and the flies swarmed so in the lanes and hedges that they rendered the horses half frantic … the country people began to look with a superstitious awe, at the red, louring aspect of the sun.”

Across the Atlantic, Benjamin Franklin wrote of “a constant fog over all Europe, and a great part of North America”.

The disruption to weather patterns meant the ensuing winter was unusually harsh, with consequent spring flooding claiming more lives.

The Laki eruption in 1783 emitted fluoride that poisoned half of Iceland’s livestock, resulting in a famine that killed approximately a quarter of Iceland’s population, and thrust vast quantities of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, directly causing many deaths in Western Europe, and contributing to several years of extreme weather in Europe. The summer of 1783 was the hottest on record and a rare high pressure zone over Iceland caused the winds to blow to the south-east. The poisonous cloud drifted to Bergen in Norway, then spread to Prague in the Province of Bohemia by 17 June, Berlin by 18 June, Paris by 20 June, Le Havre by 22 June, and to Great Britain by 23 June.

Inhaling sulphur dioxide gas causes victims to choke as their internal soft tissue swells. In Great Britain, the records show additional deaths among outdoor workers, perhaps 2-3 times above the normal rate in Bedfordshire, Lincolnshire and the east coast. It has been estimated that 23,000 British people died from the poisoning in August and September.

The haze also heated up causing severe thunderstorms with hailstones that were reported to have killed cattle until it dissipated in the autumn. This disruption then led to a most severe winter in 1784, where Gilbert White at Selborne in Hampshire reported 28 days of continuous frost. The extreme winter is estimated to have caused 8,000 additional deaths in the UK.

But, as Professor Brian Cox pointed out on today’s World at One, volcanoes are a sign that Earth is a living planet: we just have to live with them.

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