The current, dramatic eruption in Kilauea's Lower East Rift Zone is reminding us of the power of volcanoes to abruptly remake human civilization. You can go decades, sometimes centuries, before the lava comes, but when you live on an active volcanic island, it's only a matter of time before an eruption takes the land back. It is, after all, the process that created the land to begin with.
Iceland is another island that shares Hawaii's molten reality. But that island is not just a hot spot: it's also on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which makes for a lot more hot volcanic action. Icelandic folk have had to live with regular eruptions, some pretty much in their back yards, since they arrived. What happens in Iceland doesn't always stay in Iceland, either. We saw that with Eyjafjallajökull bringing European air traffic to the ground in 2010. But long before then, another dramatic eruption made its mark on a far larger swath of Europe, reached even North America, and may have shut off the monsoons in India and Africa. The volcano was Laki, the incredible fissure eruption that made nearly half the world miserable happened in 1783, and its story is ably told by Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe in their book Island on Fire: The Extraordinary Story of a Forgotten Volcano That Changed the World.
They bookend Laki's tale with the story of Heimaey, which almost fell to another fissure eruption in 1973. From there, we jump back 190 years to the day when farmers and other folk saw an enormous, forboding black cloud in the sky, heralding months of intense eruptive activity, and years of struggle and famine. In the end, this remote corner of Iceland would barely survive, and countries that had never even heard of Iceland would suffer with them. Laki may even have contributed to the French Revolution. Those are some pretty impressive effects for a relatively modest VEI 4 eruption.
We know much about the entirety of the eruption, its phenomena and phases, and its dire effects because of a superbly observant priest, Jón Steingrímsson, whose church only barely avoided being swallowed by Laki's massive lava flows. Witze and Kanipe rely on his eyewitness accounts, plus other contemporary witnesses and modern research by dedicated volcanologists, to bring us the awe-ful story.
There are times when you'll feel like you're there, breathing poisonous air, showered by gritty black ash, chased by implacable lava flows thundering down river valleys. You'll find yourself torn by the competing urges to stay and help, or flee while escape is still possible.
You'll see the dire effects of volcanic pollutants: mostly sulfur dioxide, but also fluorine, which is some extremely nasty stuff. You'll need to steel yourself before reading about the effects of fluorine poisoning, folks. The authors don't spare us the details, which are more horrific than the descriptions I've heard of radiation poisoning.
The authors linger as much on the animal cost as on the human cost of the eruption. Every living thing in Iceland suffered terribly. If you're one of those folks who bursts into tears every time an ASPCA commercial comes on, you will need to stock up on tissue and emergency kittens before you read this book.
There are excellent explorations of the eruption's effects on climate, and clear explanations of why such a relatively small eruption had such an outsize impact. You'll be very, very grateful that Kilauea isn't treating us to the same spectacle!
The focus isn't only on Laki. Many other volcanoes are compared and contrasted, including Toba, which is one of my personal favorites when it comes to species-destroying volcanic events. And we have a brief tour of other Icelandic volcanoes, which is excellent. One of my favorite parts is when the authors describe how much of Europe reacted to the fact of Iceland's vigorous volcanism by swearing the place must be Hell, and Icelandic folk wearily explaining that no, even with all the volcanoes going boom, the island is actually quite nice.
I could have done with much more detail on the causes, mechanisms, and physical features of Laki's 1783 eruption, but overall, this book provides a fabulous overview, with much awesome science and a great many fascinating people from both then and now. It's absolutely worth a read. And if you purchase it using this link, you'll help support many future reviews like this.