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Editorial
Killer Volcanoes: A Comparative History

Killer Volcanoes: A Comparative History

Published June 3, 2011

Which country starting with the letter ‘I’ has caused the most international havoc due to volcanic eruptions in the modern age? As you may have surmised, this is indeed a trick question, for the answer is not Iceland, but Indonesia. In 1816, when Europe and North America were just starting to recover from the Napoleonic Wars (the US and Canada, not to be outdone by the Europeans, had also taken part and fought each other), both continents suffered through natural disasters which very much resembled a nuclear winter. This was not due to a revenge-bent Bonaparte smuggling some sort of steam driven dirty bomb out of St. Helen, but rather because of a volcanic eruption on the other side of the world.
The year before, Mount Tambora went off on the island of Sumbawa in what is now Indonesia, the biggest volcanic eruption for 1300 years, with the result that 1816 became known as the “Year Without Summer”. Temperatures went down and harvests failed in the biggest famine of the century. The Irish suffered greatly as usual during disasters, and even the peaceful Swiss experienced riots on an unheard of scale. It is estimated that 200.000 people died as a result in Europe alone. In North America, people fled their initial settlements close to the coast and moved inland.
Volcanoes and bicycles
The eruption has several other unforeseen consequences. Since there was no hay to feed the horses, a German by the name of Karl Drais invented the precursor to the modern bicycle. The Americans were equally inventive, and one of the volcanic refugees from Vermont, Joseph Smith, came up with Mormonism during his trip west. Equally spectacularly, in Switzerland, a girl named Mary Shelley was forced to stay indoors with some of her friends and wrote Frankenstein, the first modern horror novel.
However, the volcanoes of Indonesia had not had their last say. In 1883, the island of Krakatoa exploded, creating the loudest noise in modern history (sorry to all you Manowar fans).
The blast was heard all the way to Australia, and the event caused temperatures to drop all over the world, not recovering fully until five years later. At least 40.000 people are said to have died as a result, although some estimates put the figure at three times as high.
Volcanoes and revolutions
If an Indonesian volcano created a postscript to the Napoleonic Wars, an Icelandic one may well have been its preface. In 1783-84, Lakagígar(Laki), close to the village of Kirkjubær, erupted for a whole eight months. The result has gone down in Icelandic history as the ‘Mist Hardships’, due to the sun being blocked from the sky. Half of all livestock and a quarter of the population died. The Danes even thought about moving the remaining population to Jutland, out of harm’s way, and on some days you kind of wish they had. But they didn’t, which is why we are still here to worry about volcanoes.
The repercussions of the ‘Mist Hardships’ reached far outside of Iceland. It led to famine as far away as Japan and about a sixth of Egypt’s population died. The total death toll is estimated to be around six million, making it the deadliest eruption on record. The greatest historical consequences, however, were to be found in France. The poor harvests in the years after 1784 led to increasing discontent and may have been a significant contribution to the Great Revolution of 1789 breaking out.
Even this might not be Iceland’s most historic eruption, however, for some scholars believe that the Hekla eruption of ca. 1000 BC and the resultant fallout contributed to the general decline in Bronze Age cultures of the time, not least in Ancient Egypt. Add to this the spot of bother airlines have been having for the past two years, and it really seems that Iceland might be the most dangerous earthquake island. Then again, others think that the Lake Toba eruption in Indonesia about 70.000 years ago left only around 10.000 human beings alive. Not even our President, quite given to doomsday predictions, would prophesise an Icelandic volcano doing this.

More on the volcano:
OH NO! IT’S HAPPENING AGAIN!
Icelandic Volcanism: Where, Why & How?
Volcanology? That’s From Star Trek Right?



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