Island on Fire: The extraordinary story of Laki, the volcano that turned eighteenth-century Europe dark

By Witze, A. & Kanipe, J.


224 pages | Hardcover

1st edition | April 2014

ISBN 978-178125-0044


Volcanoes are no unusual sight on Iceland and yet the eruption that started June 8, 1783 in the southern district of Síða was something never seen before. In the following eight months estimated 14 cubic kilometres of lava poured out from 135 fissures opening north of the town of Klaustur, covering estimated 2.500 square kilometres of land the lava flows threatened to overrun not only many farms, but the town itself. Fortunately, so it seemed, the lava flows stopped in time. However the volcanic 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 horse population. Nothing would grow on the fields and no more fish could be found in the sea. In the resulting famine (1783-1784) estimated nine thousand people, one-fifth of the population of Iceland, died.

But the Laki eruption - as this new formed chain of volcanoes was named - had possibly even more widespread effects. In the years after the eruption the climate in Europe deteriorated and the exceptional hot summer of 1783 was followed by long and harsh winters. The resulting crop failures may triggered one of the most famous insurrections of starving people in history, the French Revolution of 1789-1799 (even if the French peasants had many other, mostly political and financial, reasons to overthrow the government). Many other accounts for droughts, exceptional cold winters and floods are known from North America to Japan spanning the years 1783 to 1785.

Despite its apparent disastrous impacts on the environment, society and history, the Laki eruption is little known outside Iceland or specific geological publications. Many books (and even movies) have popularized Mount Vesuvius in Italy, Mount Saint Helens in the U.S. or even the great Krakatoa eruption in Indonesia. However a popular account of the Laki eruption was missing.

Authors Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe have closed this gap with "Island on Fire", where they present Laki's extraordinary story based on their research in contemporary documents, letters, newspaper articles and diaries, describing both the terrifying sight of the lava fountains and ash clouds In Iceland, as the years of anomalous weather and increased death rates in Europe. Interviews with volcanologists and climatologists all over the world provide context and explanation to these historic observations. Finally the authors also visited the modern Síða district in search of surviving traces, both found in the landscape as in the local communities, of the fires of Laki.

The book is subdivided in nine chapters. Every chapter explores in text, black & white images, diagrams and maps how Laki's effects spread over the eighteenth-century world, focusing on the European continent, where its impacts were strongest. A final section with endnotes provides recommended reading and references, like the used historical sources, modern scientific publications and some websites.

Chapter one sets the scene by introducing us to an extraordinary man and eyewitness of the first hour of the developing catastrophe, clergyman in Klaustur and self-taught naturalist Jón Steingrímsson (1728-1791), whose detailed description of the eruption and it's aftermaths forms the narrative backbone of the book.

Chapter two is dedicated to basic geologic concepts, presenting also a short geological history of Iceland and introducing the volcanoes of Laki's immediate neighborhood, like Hekla, considered by some of Steingrímsson's colleagues as the gateway to hell, or Eyjafjallajökull, a volcano that will become famous almost 230 years later. Chapter three expands the volcanic neighborhood by shortly summarizing the most famous historic and prehistoric eruptions worldwide and their impacts on human history and culture.

Chapter four and five are dedicated to the historic descriptions of seemingly unexplainable phenomena observed all over Europe in 1783. Apart some comets, also a strange haze, followed sometimes by a stench, appeared in the sky. At best this fog, found even on the highest mountains, made astronomical observations difficult, at worst it suffocated and killed people already plagued by heart- and breathing-problems. At the time only few naturalist recognized its composition (fine volcanic ash and gaseous compounds) and origin from an Icelandic volcano.

Chapter six traces the path of this volcanic haze around the globe. Shading the earth from the sun and disrupting local weather systems, the arrival of the volcanic ash was usually followed by heavy rain or hail and a marked drop in temperatures. Resulting floods and storms killed people immediately, long winters and cool summers with lowered productivity of crops had disastrous long-term effects on entire societies, based mostly on agriculture for sustenance.

Chapter seven described the difficulties that visitors still today will face when attempting to visit the site of the Laki-eruptions, where apart the today cooled and weathered lava flows, also oral traditions still remember the fateful months.

Chapter eight gives a detailed overview how volcanoes can kill. From invisible, suffocating carbon dioxide clouds (so happened at Lake Nyos in August 1986), to avalanches of incandescent rocks, that destroyed the Roman town of Pompeii more than 2.000 years ago, to a specialty of Laki, as traces of fluorine in its ash, covering fields and washed into the drinking water, poisoned thousands of animals and people.

Chapter nine explores the volcanic threat that our modern society still faces. Already the, in volcanic dimensions quite moderate, eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 became a political and financial disaster. Planes and passengers were grounded for weeks due concerns about the possibility that the volcanic ash could damage the aircraft engines with dangerous consequences. An ash cloud with the characteristics of the 1783 fog could possibly paralyze the entire air traffic of the northern hemisphere and threaten the health and lives of hundreds, maybe thousands of people.

The existing detailed documentation of Laki and its climatic effects is also of great interest for atmospheric scientists. Recent volcanic eruptions with marked cooling effects, like Pinatubo in 1991, are situated near to the tropics, where wind patterns and atmospheric circulations are relatively simple and well understood. However the rarity of great volcanic eruptions near the poles has posed great problems to scientists, trying to develop climate models fitting the particular atmospheric patterns found there. So it is still controversial if the exceptional hot and dry summer of 1783 was a direct consequence of the Laki eruption (as the ash adsorbed and scattered both sunlight and moisture) and only later atmospheric circulation dispersed the ash in such a way that the cooling effect, as seen following modern eruptions, prevailed.

In the end one thing is for sure - the title "Island on Fire" could easily be expanded to "Planet on Fire", as the two authors take the reader, starting from Iceland, on a great journey around the globe, showing how different civilizations through centuries were, and still are, influenced by the "Fire Mountains". A book I can only recommend to geology- and history-enthusiasts alike.

DISCLAIMER: This review is based on a copy of “Island on Fire: The extraordinary story of Laki, the volcano that turned eighteenth-century Europe dark.” kindly provided by the publisher/authors, however I have no affiliation with the publisher or authors; the review reflects my personal opinion on the discussed book.

Image Copyright Wiley-Blackwell, used here under Fair Use conditions for review purpose.