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June 8, 1783: How the “Laki-eruptions” changed History

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The sun fades away, the land sinks into the sea,
the bright stars  disappear from the sky,
as smoke and  fire  destroy  the world,
and the flames reach the sky.
The End of the World according to the “Völuspa“, a collection of Icelandic myths compiled in the 13th century.

Fig.1. Hand coloured copper engraving of Iceland and some of its volcanoes, from the Physical Atlas by Heinrich Berghaus (1838-48) (image in public domain).

Volcanoes are nothing unusual on Iceland, but the eruption that started June 8, 1783 was one of the deadliest events we remember.
In six months estimated 14 cubic kilometer of lava poured out from a total of 135 fissures near the old crater of Lakagigar (Lakagigar is a single mountain, Laki ist the name given to the chain of craters of the 1783 eruption), covering estimated 2.500 square kilometer of land.
One of the eyewitnesses – the pastor Jón Steingrímsson – described horryfied the unfolding disaster:

First the ground swelled up with tremendous howling, then suddenly a cry shattered it into pieces and exposing  {the earth´s] guts, like an animal tearing apart its prey.
From the smallest holes flames and fire erupted. Great blocks of rocks and pieces of grass were thrown high into the air and in indescribable heights, from time to time strong thunders, flashes’, fountains of sand , lightening [?] and dense smoke occurred… Earth trembled incessantly. …how terrible it was to see, such signs of an angry god…[now] it was time to confess to the lord.

More than 9.000 people were killed by the direct effects of the eruption, like lava and poisonous gases. The ash was carried away with the wind and poisoned the land and the sea, killing half of the Icelandic cattle population and a quarter of the sheep and horses population. Nothing would grow on the fields and no more fish could be found in the sea. In the resulting famine (1783-1784) estimated twenty thousand people – one-third of the population of Iceland – died.

But the Laki eruption had possibly even more widespread effects. In the years after the eruption the climate in Europe deteriorated, characterized by cool and rainy summers. The resulting crop failures triggered one of the most famous insurrections of starving people in history – the French Revolution of 1789-1799.

Bibliography:

BOER, de J.Z. & SANDERS, D.T. (2004): Das Jahr ohne Sommer. Die großen Vulkanausbrüche der Menschheitsgeschichte und ihre Folgen. Magnus-Verlag, Essen: 269
DAVIS, L. (2008): Natural Disasters. Facts on File Sience Library. Infobase Publishing: 464

David Bressan About the Author: Freelance geologist dealing with quaternary outcrops interested in the history and the development of geological concepts through time. Follow on Twitter @David_Bressan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. awitze 6:32 pm 06/8/2013

    Thanks for this post on my favorite eruption. One minor point about Icelandic terminology: Laki is the name of the mountain that existed prior to the eruption, and the crater row opened on either side of it. Lakagígar means “the craters of Laki” and refers to the entire crater row. [Reference: S. Thorarinsson, The Lakagígar Eruption of 1783, Bull. Volc. 33, 1969, pp. 910-919.]

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  2. 2. Ingamas 12:21 pm 06/9/2013

    A very good post and a note that weather change resulting from volcanic events have influenced a number of events, irish potato famine and the fall of rome (550AD) (or at lest change of rome) as examples. In a highly populated world change can result in lots of needless deaths and destruction; hence the reason to work together. Syria is the opposite of working together.

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  3. 3. christinaak 3:31 pm 06/10/2013

    Am I the only one who has a problem with the expression that such and such “…changed the course of history” or “changed history” as if the course of history was supposed to be something different?

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  4. 4. American Muse 9:31 am 06/11/2013

    “horryfied”?

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  5. 5. rugeirn 4:28 pm 06/11/2013

    Can’t you guys even run a spellchecker? Look at this: “described horryfied the unfolding disaster” – honestly!

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  6. 6. rugeirn 4:33 pm 06/11/2013

    @christinaak: No, you’re not, but just as you can’t fight city hall, you can’t fight the language. “Changed the course of history” is one of many klutzy, vague, imprecise, illogical expressions that abound in every tongue. What it means, of course, is that things were perking along in some reasonably predictable fashion when something big and unexpected happened that resulted in other things happening that probably wouldn’t have happened, or at least wouldn’t have happened in the same way, had things continued to perk along as they had been. A “change of history” in this sloppy, loose, illogical way of speaking means “a major change in the affairs of humanity as they were known at the time.” Which, admittedly, is a pretty long and roundabout way to say it.

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  7. 7. christinaak 8:37 pm 06/11/2013

    @rugeirn: Thank you for your response. I think a more logical substitute for the offending phrase should be “shaped” or “helped shape the course of history”. I move that the offensive phrase be banned from intelligent discourse. I thank everyone in advance for their cooperation on this matter.

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