Famine, fire and fluorosis

Updated: Feb 13

Daisy Cave rediscovers an 18th Century tragedy

One hundred years prior to the famous 1883 eruption of Krakatoa, another volcanic eruption was wreaking havoc on the Earth’s atmosphere and global weather patterns. This time, not from the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’ subduction zone, but from halfway around the world, just outside the tiny village of Klaustur in Iceland. The eruption devastated Iceland, resulting in the deaths of 10,000 Icelanders (approximately 1/5 of its population) and some historians have linked the 1783 eruption of Laki to a chain of unusual weather and crop failures, culminating in the French revolution! But outside the realms of conspiracy theorists and volcanologists, the eruption and events of the ‘Year of Awe’ have largely been relegated to the back shelves of history. However, amongst all of the destruction, one man, Klaustur local and jack of all trades, Reverend Jón Steingrímsson, kept a detailed daily account of the eruption and its impact for the months following 8 th June 1783. It is vital that his accounts are given recognition. Laki is due to erupt again and, in the age of aviation, any effects will be felt on an even greater scale, as evidenced in the infamous 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, which grounded flights across Europe.

Legend has it that on a Sunday in July 1783, Klaustur (short for Kirkjubæjarklaustur) was set to be engulfed, along with its inhabitants in a deadly flow of lava from Laki. In a defiant display of faith, Reverend Jón nonetheless decided to hold a service in the village’s doomed church, believing it would be the last ever to be held in the village. Whilst the villagers prayed in the church, the lava unexpectedly changed its path, meaning that all of the residents’ lives were saved. The sermon has been coined the ‘Fire Sermon’, with some believing that the lava moved in response to the congregation’s prayers.

The 1783 eruption gushed almost unimaginable quantities of igneous material out of Laki. The first 12 days saw the equivalent of 2 Olympic swimming pools worth of lava erupting every second: one of the largest lava flows in recorded history! 100 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide exploded into the atmosphere and covered an area over 7,750 km² in a blanket of ash! To put this into perspective, Earth’s combined volcanic emissions would usually take five years to emit such a quantity of sulphur dioxide and European industry currently produces under 5 million tonnes per year. Sulphur dioxide is known to mix with rain, resulting in the formation of sulphuric acid; when this precipitates as acid rain, it can harm arable crops and damage the pH balance in marine systems. Following the events of 1783, the gas was responsible for a string of harsh winters because, upon entering the stratosphere, sulphur aerosols cause incoming solar radiation to reflect back into space and prevent warming of the surface.

Perhaps the most devastating of the volcano’s consequences was the 7.25 million tonnes of hydrogen fluoride that poured into the atmosphere. This was particularly devastating for livestock, which grazed on contaminated grass and suffered deadly dental and skeletal fluorosis. In total, 80% of the country’s sheep and 50% of cattle were lost and this triggered a human famine, due to the loss of their staple food source. In Iceland, the disaster is known as ‘móðuharðindin’ or ‘mist hardship’, after the toxic volcanic mist. The famine, whilst mainly attributed to fluorosis, was intensified by acid rain, poisonous ash and the bitter winter; the ash and rain poisoned wild plants that were foraged for food and the freezing conditions made relief-boat journeys between Iceland and mainland Europe near impossible.

It is vital that Steingrímsson’s accounts are not forgotten. When Laki reawakens, the population of Iceland and the rest of Northern Europe need to be prepared, or else feel the volcano’s deadly wrath once more.

From Issue 20