Irritating the world since 937 (at least)

Weekly Cover | Think a week’s worth of cancelled flights are a pain? Iceland’s volcanoes have been blamed for everything from mass migration to revolution in Europe


Elías Thórsson

Iceland’s volcanoes are tourist attractions when they are dormant. But now that a series of them are stirring, they have become the domain of journalists and geologists.

Much of the concern about the Bárðarbunga volcano has to do with whether an eruption would disrupt air travel in northern Europe, as was the case in the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull (pictured above) and the 2011 Grímsvötn eruption forced airplanes to remain grounded for days.

Cancelled flights are a pain for travellers, but if that is the worst of the effects of the current event, the world will have got off lucky.

About 250 eruptions have taken place during the past millennium in Iceland’s 30 volcanic systems. Several have been particularly notable, including the 1875 eruption in Askja. That event contributed to mass emigration (by Icelandic standards) to the Americas.

SEE VIDEO: Eyjafjallajökull eruption, set to music (at end of article)

The most notorious eruption of modern times started on June 8, 1783, in the Laki fissure, which stretches 25km through the southern part of the island. The eruption lasted eight months. Its effects were devastating.

“As many as 12,000 people perished due to the eruption, mostly in its aftermath,” says geophysicist Ari Trausti Guðmundsson, for decades one of Iceland’s foremost geologists. “Furthermore, more than half the livestock in the country died, so it had a very serious impact on the nation.”

What made the eruption so lethal was the ash and gas it released. Ash covered grasslands and spoiled water. Crops failed. Those who didn’t starve died of fluoride poisoning. History has named the suffering Móðuharðindin, the hardship of the mist, in reference to the ash that lingered in the air.

“The Laki eruption was the last major eruption in Iceland, and the one that most likely impacted people the most,” Mr Guðmundsson says.

The numbers – as much as 14 cubic kilometres of volcanic substance ejected into the atmosphere and a lava field measuring 580km was created – tell a dramatic, if impersonal, tale. It takes the words of the witnesses themselves to reveal the depth of the suffering.

“This past week, and the two prior to it, more poison fell from the sky than words can describe: ash, volcanic hairs, rain full of sulphur and saltpetre, all of it mixed with sand. The snouts, nostrils and feet of livestock grazing or walking on the grass turned bright yellow and raw. All water went tepid and light blue in colour and gravel slides turned grey. All the earth’s plants burned, withered and turned grey, one after another, as the fire increased and neared the settlements.”

The account, penned by Jón Steingrímsson, a parish priest, is retold in Fires of the Earth, a book by Keneva Kunz, which seeks to describe the impacts of the eruption on Iceland. But the consequences were far more wide reaching.

Around 120 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide were released into the atmosphere, reaching altitudes of up to 15km, where it was carried on the wind to Europe.

“The global impact of the Laki eruption has become pretty well known. Harvests failed, ash clouds were noticeable in many European countries and temperatures dropped across the Northern Hemisphere. The effect was so wide-reaching it was even felt in China,” Mr Guðmundsson says.

Benjamin Franklin, an early American statesman living in France in at the time of the eruption, is believed to have been the first person to suggest the interaction between volcanic activity and climate, writing in 1784 that the colder than normal winter that year could be ascribed to the eruption the year before.

Historians have even suggested that the Laki eruption, and the crop failures that ensued, were a cause of the French Revolution.

“This is one of those fascinating theories that probably has some element of truth to it,” Mr Guðmundsson says. “Problems caused by rapid cooling can cause societal unrest, but the eruption also had a major effect on Great Britain and elsewhere. It’s is pretty ridiculous to place all blame for the French revolution on Laki; the matter is a lot more complicated than that.”

Laki, though, is not alone in making trouble for people. Guðmundsson’s shortlist of the most damaging eruptions includes Eldgjá in 937, Hekla in 1104, Öræfajökull in 1362 and Veiðivötnum in 1477.

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Statistically speaking, he warns, we are due to add another name to that list.

“If you space these eruptions out you see that there is between 150 and 250 years between each. And you have to ask yourself, is this going to end? And the answer is ‘no’. Then the question becomes, what a about society today? And it is really hard to predict what would happen if another Laki-size eruption were to start tomorrow, and how widespread the impact of that would be.”

Twenty-first century life, he says, is far less susceptible to fallout from a volcanic eruption, but the havoc Eyjafjallafjökull played with air travel shows that we can’t ignore them entirely.

“We would have to take all sorts of emergency measures, but I think that all in all it would be a lot more manageable. People in Iceland today are not going to die of starvation because of crop failures and now we can avoid toxic water and food.”

Originally published by The Arctic Journal. Re-published here with the permission of the author.

The Weekly Cover is The Rasmussen’s main story of the week. These articles will sometimes look ahead at one of the more important or interesting topics of the coming week, or they may provide insight and analysis about a current issue.

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