Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
The Icelandic Volcano that Froze the Mississippi, Starved Egypt, and Helped Along the French Revolution
On June 8, 1783, the Laki or Lakagigar volcanic fissure in Iceland erupted. It wasn’t a giant explosion, but it kept going for the next eight months. In that time the Laki sent into the earth’s atmosphere 8 million tons of hydrogen fluoride and 120 million tons of sulfur dioxide.
The visitor to Iceland — as I was recently — commonly tours around Iceland’s many volcanic sights from the Geysir (whence the word “geyser”) to the Blue Lagoon and sees them as charming places. And even the earliest Norsemen to settle in Iceland immediately noticed its volcanic character — “Reykjavik,” meaning “smoky bay,” was so named because the Nordic sailors saw the area covered in geothermal steam. But in the course of history, Iceland’s volcanos often played cataclysmic roles. In 934 A.D., the Eldgja eruption may have led to severe weather conditions in China. In our own time, the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010 grounded flights in and out of Europe; I distinctly remember my then colleagues in the U.S. for a conference being unable to return to Germany.
But nothing quite compares to the 1783-84 eruption. In Iceland itself, up to a third of the Icelandic population died from fluoride poisoning and the “Haze Famine” that resulted from the volcanic haze blocking out the sun. The same killed half of Iceland’s cattle. As a result, though the rest of Europe advanced in leaps and bounds through the 18th century, Iceland found itself at the end of the 1700s in the same position as at the beginning.
That’s not to say that the Laki spared the rest of Europe. No less than Benjamin Franklin noted “a constant fog over all Europe, and a great part of North America.” Whereas the Eyjafjallajökull eruption grounded planes, the Laki kept ships in their ports, with sailors being unable to see through the smog. One British scientist reported: “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.” The weather changes made England practically tropical: “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 ensuing winter across the world was uncommonly cold around the world. In America, the Mississippi froze at New Orleans, and ice floes drifted in the Gulf of Mexico as though it were the Arctic. The severe weather delayed Congress from gathering and approving the Treaty of Paris ending the American Revolutionary War. In Asia and Africa, the eruption disrupted the monsoon cycles and led to a drought in Egypt and a resultant famine that killed one-sixth of the population.
In Europe, severe weathers continued for several years. In France the agricultural disruptions added to the social and economic discontent that, by 1789, prompted full-fledged revolution.
See my earlier post on Budyko’s Blanket as a solution to anthropogenic climate change.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."