The ash clouds from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland that caused so much air traffic disruption in Northwest Europe in April and May are not the first time that volcanoes in Iceland have affected areas much further afield.
Over 200 years ago, 8th June 1783, the Laki volcano in Iceland began erupting. The lava flow it produced was the largest in modern times, and ended up covering 218 square miles by the time the eruptions ended, 8 months later.
In Iceland, clouds of Fluorine gas descended on the land, turning to Hydrofluoric Acid, which literally dissolved the flesh from livestock across the island. Over half the cattle and horses died, and three quarters of the sheep as well. The result was widespread famine in Iceland, with many people resorting to looting for food, and a quarter of the population ended up starving to death.
Meantime, the clouds of ash and poisonous Sulfur Dioxide gas drifted over the UK and Northern Europe, where it arrived on 22nd June 1783. Here it spent months lingering, due to it being a very hot summer, with a high pressure region over Iceland. This was followed by a very cold winter, made worse by the ash and haze in the air reducing the amount of sunlight that could permeate the atmosphere.
The poisonous gas lay like a dry fog on the ground, and between this and the heatwave, caused many thousands of deaths. Estimates indicate that 80 times as much gas was emitted by the eruption as from Mount St. Helens.
The strange fog kept many ships in port, crops withered, and it is thought that this also caused famine as far away as Egypt, as well as affecting the monsoon in Asia.
Such disruption to the economies throughout Europe, lead to the unrest of much of the population, and may also have been a significant factor that lead to the French Revolution of 1789.
The suffering in the UK can be seen in the diaries of English naturalist and ornithologist, Gilbert White, who wrote:
The summer of the year 1783 was an amazing and portentous one, and full of horrible phaenomena; for besides the alarming meteors and tremendous thunder-storms that affrighted and distressed the different counties of this kingdom, 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 wind varied to every quarter without making any alteration in the air. 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.
All the 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, and riding irksome. The country people began to look with a superstitious awe, at the red, louring aspect of the sun
The ash cloud blotted out the sun’s rays to the extent that over both Europe and North America the winter of 1783 was exceptionally harsh, and was one of the worst since records began. Temperatures in much of the Northern Hemisphere were between 4 to 9 degrees colder than average.
In regions that are typically cold, such as Alaska and Siberia, conditions were desperate. Crops failed to grow, and as a result starvation was widespread. Even the Mississippi River froze over that winter as far south as New Orleans, and there was ice reported in the Gulf Of Mexico.
Benjamin Franklin noted:
There is a constant fog over all Europe, and a great part of North America.
The total death toll is not known however almost 10,000 people died in Iceland, 23,000 in England, and 1/6th of the population in Egypt also died because of the famine. The overall death toll is not known but it may be greater than 100,000 throughout the Northern Hemisphere.
Fortunately the current eruptions in Iceland have only affected air travel – so far. However, if the clouds of ash were to continue to fill the skies and to block out the sun over parts of the Northern Hemisphere, we could be faced with another more widespread catastrophe once the winter months arrive.
Gilbert White on Wikipedia
Laki, Iceland – 1783
Laki on Wikipedia