A Volcano Bigger Than Timberlake

A Volcano Bigger Than Timberlake

Or How We Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Lava

Haukur Már Helgason
Photos by
HMH

Published August 23, 2014

Historically, Iceland has seen some volcanic eruptions at a devastating scale. The most prominent in public memory is arguably the late 18th century Móðuharðindi, two years of brutal hardships caused by an eruption in volcanic ridge Lakagígar. The sky and sun darkened, while ashes destroyed pastures, and temperatures sank, leading to the death of an estimated 75% of the country’s livestock and a fifth of its human population. After 200 years of economic and technological progress, any such incident should now be easier to deal with. That seemed to be the case, albeit on a smaller scale, during the unforeseen 1973 eruption in the island cluster Vestmannaeyjar: while the main island’s 400 homes were destroyed by ashes, there were no human casualties. That doesn’t make volcanos harmless. The physical effects of eruptions remain, at best, a nuisance. As some hotspots are found beneath glaciers, eruptions easily cause floods that tear roads apart, while ashes still destroy farmland and so on. The destructive powers of magma-crust interactions definitely remain a negative factor in public opinion. What follows is a purely speculative approach on other possible opinion-shaping factors.

I Erupt, Therefore, Momentarily, I Am

As made evident in 2010, however, an eruption in Iceland can seriously affect people outside the country, as well. I used to perceive Iceland as a somewhat schizoid society, before learning that narcissism has come to be considered a more useful term to approach the same set of symptoms: Never quite sure if it’s real or not, Iceland seeks constant self-validation from others, also known as narcissistic supply. This can be easily verified by experiments. In conversation with a random local, try mentioning, for example, the hypothesis that the impact of the 1783 eruption in Lakagígar on French harvests, and the famine it brought upon the population, proved a decisive factor in the series of events leading up to the 1789 French Revolution. This is not out of the blue, by the way. Temperatures did drop globally, causing crop failures around Europe. Benjamin Franklin, serving as US diplomat in Europe at the time, wrote that during the summer of 1783 ‘there existed a constant fog over all Europe and a great part of north America’ and described the succeeding winter as the most severe for years. Professor John Grattan estimates that in 1783, volcanic ashes from Lakagígar led to the death of 23 thousand people in Britain alone. The global death-toll may number in the millions.

For a compact population, evidence of having in any way played a decisive part in the unfolding of historical events, even as History’s own evil twin, is a matter of, not so much secret, as unconscious pride.

But you see, I am already doing what I claim the subject of your experiment would or might do: I pontificate, I even brag —on behalf of geological incidents as devastating as they are past. Knowing better is certainly not enough. For a compact population, evidence of having in any way played a decisive part in the unfolding of historical events, even as accomplice to History’s own evil twin, is a matter of some, not so much secret, as unconscious pride. It is there. You will see it in the twitch of their eyes, in a suppressed but unmistakenly sly smile.

In comparison, the 2010 eruption in Eyjafjallajökull is not known to have caused any human fatalities. The flight delays it caused, all over Europe (insert sly smiley), made some of those who identify with Iceland, and thereby its volcanos, act as if embarrassed for causing all this trouble. Like burping at a dinner party, however, even a perceived cause of embarrassment is evidence of one’s existence. Which feels, compared with lack of such evidence, good. To take our experiment further: If you mention the 2010 flight disruptions to a local, chances are that he or she will sport the aforementioned smile —but this time while halfway apologizing. On behalf of the magma. This is not glee. The smile reveals, again, relief for feeling real. For a moment. It wears off, but it’s still something.

The amount of attention that eruptions bring about, is a highly influential factor towards pro-volcanic attitudes. Which makes our current score a 1:1 draw between pro- and anti-volcanism. We still have some major parts to examine, though.

The Eyjafjallajökull eruption provided the only known instance of Iceland’s fame surpassing peak-Justin Timberlake —which, according to Google, happened around his performance at the 2004 American Super-Bowl.

Icelandic Króna Rises To 4-Year High, At 1.34 Per Click

At least some qualified professionals, as well as a lot of magazine covers, have labelled our times as exceptionally narcissistic, citing social media, selfies and a prevalent tendency towards marketisation of the self. Whatever the best term for times when attention seems equivalent to capital, the attention heaped on Iceland during eruptions can nowadays be easily exchanged for real money. More easily than the Icelandic króna, for example. If volcanic eruptions were a wilful act, this might be the country’s strongest current incentive.

The graph featured in this article depicts the frequency of searches for the word ‘Iceland’ on Google over the last ten years. In that period, there is no point in time that comes close to the attention given Iceland during the 2010 eruption. The notorious 2008 bank crash, for instance, hardly measures on the same scale. As popularity and notoriety amount to much the same here, let’s just settle for the phrase fame. The Eyjafjallajökull eruption provided the only known instance of Iceland’s fame surpassing peak-Justin Timberlake —which, according to Google, happened around his performance at the 2004 American Super-Bowl. Eyjafjallajökull was bigger than Timberlake at the Super-Bowl, that’s how big it was.

Iceland, Two Events

Graph 1: Google searches for ‘Iceland’ through ten years. Spike on the left marks the 2008 bank collapse. The taller peak on the right marks the 2010 eruption in Eyjafjallajökull.

Peak Timberlake at Super Bowl In 2004, Peak Iceland through Eyjafjallajökull in 2010.

Graph 2: Google searches for ‘Iceland’, peaking around the 2010 eruption in Eyjafjallajökull, compared with Google searches for ‘Justin Timberlake’, peaking at the 2004 Super Bowl.

Since 2010, Promote Iceland, a government agency established to enhance Iceland’s image abroad, and managed by representatives of the country’s main industries, has surfed the Eyjafjallajökull-wave magnificently. Apart from the country’s broken currency and low wages, the appropriate channeling of the attention given to Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption may be the largest single cause of the country’s recent tourist boom. The country certainly has many attractions, but they have never attracted as they do since then.

One more such perfectly pitched eruption surely would not harm. Unless, of course, it would actually do some harm. As long as eruptions are not physically catastrophic, these days they provide Iceland with just the right titillation for successful nation-branding. The population knows is very well aware of this, which leaves the score of local attitudes at 2:1 for pro-volcanism.

In the face of a common, apersonal, nemesis, family and friends can settle their differences and reunite, even if only momentarily. Seismic activity is, in other words, easy to talk about. Easier even than football, terrorism or wars.

Relief From Humans

The fourth significant factor in shaping local attitudes towards volcanos has to do with language and cognition. Icelandic, not so much the successor of Old-Norse as its mausoleum and amazingly well preserved remains, is rich of words for natural phenomena, and less affluent when it comes to abstract … thingies. Famously, the language has no word for failure, for example, but it does have one for wrecking a ship, which is often used instead. The most common expression for putting a serious effort into reaching a goal is to ‘row all oars’ towards it. And so on. Ships and sheep still provide the metaphors through which we make sense of our lives, which have for the most part come to involve very little direct contact with either. What this means, in short, is that talking about stuff is sometimes hard. So there’s that.

Politics, then, can be a particularly problematic topic for discussion, not least due to the country’s sparse population. Wherever two or more among the population meet, whoever is mentioned in their conversation is unavoidably a niece or nephew or mother or brother-in-law of one of them. Even applying the most mildly abstract notions in such a conversation, words like office, regulation or breach, is mostly futile and will be swiftly asphyxiated by someone who knows better because he or she knows the person being discussed. The personal person, personally. He or she just heard her or him on the phone and he or she said that all those other words are not worth their weight in salted chips. So. It’s not so much a question of conversing as trying to run past a myriad gag-orders, by definition always implied, always felt, never stated.

More factors combine to make natural disasters feel as a great relief in conversation. Some speculations were heard, back in 2007, that the physical load of the highly debated, massive Kárahnjúkar dam might provoke seismic activity. Experts, however, do not see recent events in that relation, leaving the topic of volcanos absolutely, delightfully apolitical. In the face of a common, apersonal, nemesis, family and friends can settle their differences and reunite, even if only momentarily. Seismic activity is, in other words, easy to talk about. Easier even than football, terrorism or wars. —How big was that one? —They say magnitude 3 or more. —I bet it was 4. —You think it was 4? —I think it was. Then the phone rings and someone asks if you are ok. It’s nice.

Talking about volcanos is so nice, that news media, no less than their readers, may cover any and all conceivable sides of a potential eruption —the consequences, the destruction, the story of the viking that the mountain is named after, the number of quakes today, their sizes compared with yesterday, comparisons with actual historical eruptions, speculation on which flights might be cancelled, which flight routes might be changed, interviews with scientists, interviews with local farmers— day after day, headline after headline, for weeks on end, without anything having actually happened. Because in comparison with most other things, which tend to involve both people and abstractions, talking about volcanos is reassuringly straight-forward, a smooth run through a language with all the words for the job. Which leaves this thoroughly non-scientific estimate of public opinion at 3:1 pro-volcanist.

To conclude: Seismic activity in general, and volcanos in particular, seem to play a significant role within Iceland as an apparently functioning state. They even seem to belong to the list of things of which you say that if they were not there, they would have to be invented. Who’s keeping that list? Anyway, feelings are mixed, for sure. Most people, of course, don’t want another apocalypse yet. Lately, however, eruptions and earthquakes seem like some sort of geophysical reverse-lottery, where, if you play, you probably win. Not exactly a win-win situation, this is the win-win-win-apocalypse, win-win-win-apocalypse variant. Not that we really have any say in the matter, but who would refuse those odds?


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