Historic eruption on Iceland killed thousands

Smoke and steam rises from  the volcano under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier in Iceland.
By Dirk Vandenberghe

The eruption of an Icelandic volcano disrupted air traffic all over Europe Thursday. In 1783, a similar catastrophe killed thousands of people across the continent.

This time it was Eyjafjallajökull that erupted. In 1783, it was Laki. On Wednesday, a few hundred Icelanders had to be evacuated. Back then, at least 10,000 died. This week, a few dozens of tourists were rescued from a glacier and hundreds of thousands of people were stranded at airports. Then, tens of thousands of people died all over Europe. The famine that followed the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Laki helped spark the French Revolution of 1789. The only people to benefit from the eruption were the painters of the late 18th century who embellished their canvasses with beautiful bright-red suns.

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800 evacuated

On Wednesday night, the volcano underlying the Eyjafjallajökull glacier erupted for the second time in a month. An ash plume reached up to eight kilometres in the air and water levels rose in nearby rivers, causing the evacuation of 800 people and damage to nearby infrastructure.

Agust Gunnar Gylfason, of Iceland's Civil Defence Service, said none of the nearby houses are in any imminent danger, even though an assessment of the worst damage is still underway. Some 70 tourists who were taking pictures of the aftermath of the first eruption had to be rushed to safety by rescue workers.

The volcano, which lies approximately 120 kilometres southeast of the capital, Reykjavik, came back to life on March 20 after lying dormant for nearly two centuries. Scientists said that the magnitude of last Wednesday’s eruption was ten to twenty times greater than that of the earlier one, meaning there will be an increased risk of flooding this time around. It is almost impossible to predict how long the eruption will last. "It could last for days, perhaps weeks," said Einar Kjartansson, a geologist with the Icelandic meteorological service.

As the eruptions continued on Thursday, lava reached uninhabited parts of the volcanic island. By Friday, a thin layer of ash covered some parts of the country. Most people on Iceland have not been affected by either the floods or the ash cloud, however. The wind is blowing it towards the rest of Europe. Only on the southern part of the island has visibility been reduced to 150 metres, and have farmers been advised to keep their livestock indoors.

Scientists fear that volcanic activity in Iceland may increase. In the past, eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull were always followed by the eruptions of the Katla volcano, which generally caused more serious flooding.

Disaster of 1783

Things could be much worse though. On June 8, 1783, the Laki volcano erupted and remained active for eight months. Its ash cloud reached as high as 15 kilometres. The poisonous dust that rained down on Iceland killed 10,000 people, a quarter of the island's population at the time.

The Icelandic language even has a word for it: Móduhardbindin, meaning "death by famine caused by poisonous gas". Domestic animals suffered white spots on their skin and burns on their hooves. The little grass that remained turned yellow and pink. Half of all livestock died from poisoning.

Iceland was not the only country where apocalyptic scenes became reality. In the United Kingdom, the summer of 1783 would go down in history as the "sand summer". Large swaths of Europe were enveloped in a thick, permanent, haze. The fog rolled over Bergen in Norway first, followed by Prague and Berlin, and finally, Paris and Rome. With visibility at sea extremely limited, ships remained moored in port. By day, a paltry sun emitted little more light than the moon did by night. Only at sunset and sunrise did it turn a deep crimson red.

Extremely hot summers and cold winters followed, causing crops to fail across Europe. Famine ensued. In the UK alone, 23,000 people died from poisoning in the summer of 1783. In the winter that followed an additional 8,000 succumbed to hunger. In 1784, the United States had its coldest winter ever. Even parts of the Gulf of Mexico froze over. The Mississippi river was covered with ice as far south as New Orleans.

The eruption's effects lasted until 1788. France was plagued by heavy storms. Newspaper reports from the era mention hailstones so big they killed cattle on impact. Harvests failed and famine followed. Grain prices reached record heights. The country's rural populace in particular, which then accounted for 85 percent of the population, rebelled against the bankrupt French monarchy. The Bastille prison was stormed and the Ancien Régime overturned. France would remain a hotbed of unrest for years, long after the Laki volcano in Iceland had already returned to a deep and long-lasting slumber.

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