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History of Geology

History of Geology

What rocks tell and how we came to understand it

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

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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

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

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