ALH Anna Lee Huber

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And Once Again, History Repeats Itself...Icelandic Volcano Eruptions
April 19, 2010

I imagine many of you heard about the volcanic eruption in Iceland last week, and how the plume of ash drifted across Europe grounding all flights for the foreseeable future. The moment I first saw this story on the news, I gasped because I had just done research on another Icelandic volcano eruption – the Laki Volcano, which erupted in 1783. 

The first Laki fissure opened on June 8, 1783, sending a plume of gas and ash into the atmosphere. The emission of sulfuric aerosols would last over an eight-month period, and result in important climate and social changes. 8 million tons of hydrogen fluoride and 120 millions tons of sulfur dioxide combined to cause the “Laki haze” that settled over Europe. The summer of 1783 was termed the “sand-summer” in Great Britain because of the ash fallout.

In Iceland, the results of Laki’s eruption were catastrophic. 20-25% of the population was estimated to have died from famine and fluorine poisoning, as well as 80% of sheep, and 50% of cattle and horses. 

The consequences in Europe were just as startling. The summer of 1783 was the hottest on record. The poisonous cloud from Laki drifted southeast due to a rare high pressure zone over Iceland, overspreading Norway, Prague, Berlin, Paris, Le Havre, and then finally Great Britain on June 23. Unable to navigate because of the thick haze, boats were forced to stay in port. The sun was said to have appeared blood colored. Death rates increased, particularly among outdoor workers who were forced to inhale the sulfur dioxide gas. An estimated 23,000 people died in Great Britain from the poisonous gas alone. The Laki haze heated the atmosphere, triggering severe thunderstorms with enormous hailstones able to kill cattle.

The disruption in the atmosphere also led to the one of the most severe winters in record. Even in North America, the winter of 1784 still stands historically as one of the longest and coldest on record. New England saw the longest period of below-zero temperatures in New England, New Jersey the largest snow accumulation, and the Chesapeake Bay froze over for the longest period. There was even ice skating in Charleston Harbor, and the Mississippi River froze over in New Orleans. 

Laki’s eruption and the disturbances it caused meteorogically directly impacted the weather for several years in Europe. In France, crops failed in 1783, but then a surplus harvest in 1785 drove the price of crops down and increased poverty among the rural workers. Droughts and bad weather followed, including a 1788 hailstorm that devastated crops. These events contributed significantly to the build up of poverty and famine that was one of the main catalysts of the French Revolution in 1789. 

Only time will tell whether the Icelandic volcano eruption of 2010 will have such a significant impact on our weather, or if major social changes are brewing in the wind. But I do wonder whether the news should be reporting on more than the impact to air travel and big business. The haze will eventually dissipate, and planes will fly again. I want to know how this volcano’s eruptions and emissions compare to the past, and what to expect – a scorching summer followed by a frigid winter? Will the volcano’s eruption occurring a full month and a half earlier in the year than the eruption in 1783 spare this year’s crops in Europe? Or only make it worse? I have no fear we will survive, but I would like to be prepared.



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