In a recent New Scientist article, “Get ready for decades of Icelandic fireworks,” volcanologist Þorvaldur Þórðarson speculates this next active volcanic phase could last for another 60 years, reaching its peak before 2040. So far, estimates of Eyjafjallajökull’s costs to airlines and travel companies range between $1.7 and 4 billion—and that’s just for five days of ash plumes. And while the EU is still squabbling to find a unified “ash-no-ash flying policy,” the days of volcanic-free travel appear to lie in the distant future. EU aid to effected, cash-poor airlines such as FinnAir has also not yet been unilaterally agreed upon. Being stranded at the airport for five days may seem like the end of the world, but it isn’t. Not by a long shot.
Let’s rewind for a minute
Iceland, June 1783. A 25-kilometre fissure spanning 130 craters erupts. Lava fountains spout 1500 metres. Gasses of toxic sulphuric aerosols rise to 15 kilometres and inundate Europe, then sift across the globe. (In comparison Eyjafjallajökull’s plume rose to around 9 km) Over 122 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide are emitted in eight months (that’s more than three times the entire European industrial output today). In the end, the lava covers 600 square kilometres. The Laki eruption and its aftermath kills close to a third of the Icelandic population. Toxic gasses reach as far as Japan. The Alaskan Kauwerak tribe come to call 1783 “the year the summer did not come.”
Events as recounted by Lutheran “Fire Preacher” Rev. Jón Steingrímsson unfold thus: “It began with the earth heaving upwards, with a great screaming…of winds…then spitting asunder, ripping…as if a crazed animal were tearing something apart. The flood of fire flowed like a great river…great cliffs and slabs were swept along, tumbling about like large whales swimming red hot and glowing.” The reverend blames the cataclysm on the loose morality of the Icelandic nation, but delivers his church and congregation from the river of lava through prayer and divine intervention: the wrath and subsequent vindication of a merciful God.
In France, priests conduct exorcisms on Satan’s fog cloud as people fall like flies. Over 5% of the French population died in one 18th Century summer (some claim the aftermath may have precipitated the French Revolution). Across the channel in England, mortality rates double. Scientists have estimated that toxic fumes killed over 20,000 people in Britain (100,000 people by today’s reckoning). Torrential rain, flash floods, hail and lightning storms plague Britain in August and September. In 1783, the naturalist Gilbert White writes: “Unlike anything known within the memory of man.”
By the time Laki stopped erupting in February of 1784, it had emitted over 8 million tonnes of toxic chemical fluorine. The fluorine, mixed with fallen ash, killed 80% of Iceland’s sheep population and over 50% of its cows and horses. Fall-out effects were dramatic and far-flung. The high-pressure weather system carried particles as far as India, where the monsoon was nothing more than a drizzle. In 1784, famine hit Egypt reducing the country by 20% of its population. During the ensuing years extreme cold in Japan decimated crops, leading to the death of over one million people. In short, these volcanic effects ran amok across the globe. A study conducted by Rutgers University in 2006 conclusively proved a direct correlation between high-latitude eruptions and water supply in North Africa during the period. For Europe, possibly the biggest natural catastrophe disaster ever, would be the toxic fog from an Icelandic volcano.
And Laki was not the largest to have shown its wrath.
Alongside Laki, in the conjoined volcanic system including Katla, Hekla, Grímsvötn, and the now-well-known-yet-still-unpronounceable Eyjafjallajökull, lies the dormant Eldgjá (the “fire canyon”), the largest volcanic canyon in the world. Eight hundred years before the Laki eruption (934-940 AD), not long after the Viking settlers started to get comfortable in their turf houses, Eldgjá, the largest emitter of volcanic gas in recorded history, spewed forth in all its glory. All in all, Eldgjá exhumed over 220 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide—nearly double that of Laki.
Yet there is little mention in the medieval record, and certainly not in the Sagas.
The historian Oren Falk sees the portrayal of Ragnarök in the prophetic poem Völuspá (detailing the creation of the world as recounted by a völva [a seeress] to the god Óðinn) as being influenced by witnesses to Icelandic volcanic activity, yet there is very little that points any particular eruption. Falk only finds a few vague references in Landnámabók and in the later Bishops’ Sagas. In fact, he says: “the entire corpus of Family Sagas, thirteen thick volumes’-worth…seems to know nothing of lava and ash plumes.”
Folklorist Juliana Magnúsdóttir theorises that the early settlers were cautious of their volcanic tales for fear of halting the influx of new immigrants to Iceland. Nevertheless there are a handful legends speckled within the oral traditions and the Annals. And, as Magnúsdóttir points out, “One of the descriptions of Ragnarök before the end is that of a blood-covered sun. The shape of Iceland was defined by volcanic activity and how it affected the people.” Gilbert White writes: “The sun at noon [over Hampshire] looked as blank as the moon and shed a rust coloured ferruginous light on the ground, but was particularly lurid and blood-coloured at rising and setting.”
Recent catastrophes are a testament to the lack of foresight and the inadequacy of governments: floods, tsunamis, hurricane Katrina, the Haiti and Szechwan earthquakes, the avian and swine flu. The lingering presence of the ever-recurring-greenhouse-gas-driven El Niño sends shivers down most policy-makers’ spines.
With the Mayan cosmic cycle coming to a close in 2012 conspiracy theories abound, New Agers maintain that this is all part of the great cosmic plan. Biophysicist Dieter Broers speculates that the largest solar flare for fifteen years triggered Iceland’s volcanic activity; others maintain these are the beginnings of the European death cloud predicted by Nostradamus. Lord knows. Even UFOs have been spotted hovering over top of Eyjafjallajökull.
Gordon Brown sent the HMS Ark Royal to pick up marooned tourists in France and Spain. With him lagging behind at the voting polls, one wonders if he didn’t seriously consider putting Iceland back on the terrorist list. This, friends, is the ashen-faced reality.
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