From Iceland — A Volcano Bigger Than Timberlake

A Volcano Bigger Than Timberlake

Published September 5, 2014

Or: How we learned to stop worrying and love the lava

A Volcano Bigger Than Timberlake
Haukur Már Helgason
Photo by
Elli Thor

Or: How we learned to stop worrying and love the lava

The most prominent, truly devastating volcanic eruption in Icelanders’ public memory is arguably the late-18th century eruption in the volcanic ridge Lakí, followed by the Móðuharðindi, two years of all-over brutal hardships. The sky went dark, and the sun faded, 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. Then there was the late-19th century eruption, after which a fifth of the island’s populace moved to Canada. The ashes from the sudden 1973 eruption in the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago destroyed 400 homes. One person was killed by the fumes.

A volcano is not a harmless spectacle. The real thing is, at best, a nuisance. Some hotspots lie beneath glaciers, so even relatively modest eruptions easily cause floods that tear roads apart, while the ashes still destroy pastures, and so on. All caused by magma. It’s down there, always, at around 1000°C. In its subterranean state it has only been directly observed three times in history, two of which were in Iceland. When it surfaces it changes its name and substance, becomes lava. The destructive powers of those things give them a bad rep, with good reason. What follows is a purely speculative approach on opinion-shaping factors concerning volcanoes.

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I erupt, therefore, momentarily, I am

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. This can be easily verified by experiments. Say to a local, for example, that you heard that the 1783 eruption in Laki destroyed French harvests, leading to a famine, which in turn caused anger and proved a decisive factor leading to the 1789 French Revolution. This is not out of the blue, by the way. Benjamin Franklin, serving as a US diplomat in Europe at the time, wrote of “a constant fog over all Europe and a great part of north America” during the summer of 1783, and described the succeeding winter as the most severe for years. Franklin also speculated whether the fog and drop in temperature might be caused by the eruption in Iceland. The winter was indeed a cold one, 2°C below average in Europe and 4.8°C below average in North America. Crops failed, people died. Since 2011, Franklin’s Laki hypothesis, however, seems to have been refuted, as a research team of the Earth Institute at Columbia University concluded that sea surface temperature oscillations were a more likely explanation for the cold spell. And, presumably, for the French Revolution.

The eruption was catastrophic enough, regardless. “More poison fell from the sky than words can describe: ash, volcanic hairs, rain full of sulphur and saltpeter, all of it mixed with sand,” wrote cleric Jón Steingrímsson at the time, continuing: “All the earth’s plants burned, withered and turned grey, one after another, as the fire increased and neared the settlements.” He became famous for his “fire-mass,” which reportedly halted the flow of lava before it entered said settlements, through words of faith. He may have saved his townspeople, but the following hardships killed at least one fifth of the island’s total population. And then some. Professor John Grattan, at the University of Wales’s Institute of Geography and Earth Sciences, estimates that through the summer 1783, air pollution from Laki killed 23,000 in Britain alone.

But, see: I am already doing what I claim the subject of your experiment would do: on the defensive, having found out that the French Revolution may not have been caused by Laki, I still go on bragging—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 History’s own evil twin, is a matter of some pride.

Mention Franklin’s Laki hypothesis to a local and I bet you will be faced with a suppressed but unmistakably sly smile. The 2010 eruption in Eyjafjallajökull is not known to have caused any human fatalities. The flight delays it did cause, all over Europe (insert sly smiley), evidently made some people a bit embarrassed for causing all this trouble. As accomplices to a volcano. Even a cause of embarrassment, however, is proof of one’s existence. Compared with a chronic lack of such evidence, this feels good. When you see a conflicted smile on the face of someone apologizing for the mess, it is not glee. It is relief for feeling, momentarily, real. This potential acknowledgement of historical existence is definitely a pro-volcanic factor in public opinion.

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Icelandic króna rises to 4-year high, at 1.34 per click

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 2010 eruption. The 2008 bank crash hardly measures on the same scale. 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.

These are narcissistic times, claim at least some qualified professionals, as well as a lot of magazine covers, citing social media and selfies as a evidence. Attention, as measured in clicks, has in any case become a valuable, if volatile, currency, and the attention heaped on Iceland during that last eruption proved to be easily exchanged for actual money. More easily than the local currency, in any case. 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, harbouring the attention given to Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption may, reportedly, be the largest single cause of the country’s recent tourist boom.

As long as eruptions are not physically catastrophic, these days they provide Iceland with just the right titillation for successful nation-branding. The population is well aware of this, which is another decisive positive factor in its volcanic attitudes. That’s 2:1 for volcanoes, then.

Relief from humans

One of the foreign language-games that never fully succeeded in Iceland is the distinction between public and private.

To take a recent example: During a criminal investigation against a Ministry, the Minister herself initiates numerous conversations with the police chief responsible for the investigation. She asks him whether seizing her assistant’s computer was really necessary, if the police could please hurry the interrogation of her assistant, if they could please proceed a bit faster, and so on. To make a long story short, this becomes public. The Minister goes on TV to answer for the accusations. During the interview, in which she vigorously refuses all blame, while not refuting any of the accusations, she consistently refers to the chief of police by his first name, Stefán. There are even instances of “Stefán and I.” She even utters this line, in a verbatim translation: “Stefán is a grown man. He is the Chief of Police in Reykjavík.”

If you find nothing peculiar about that, you were raised in Iceland. For a century, the state has enforced a language policy against last names, as a “foreign influence” that would go against tradition. On its own, that means nothing, but put in context I tend to see it as symptomatic of a society stubbornly resistant to the establishment of a viable public sphere. If corruption is a word for mixing up private and public affairs, it would seem absolutely superfluous in a country where everyone is already on a first name basis with everyone else.

In comparison with attempting to run a democratic republic between the 300,000 of us, an earthquake is the lesser quake. No one expects a volcano to distinguish between public and private. In this sense, eruptions come as a relief. At most, the topic leaves room for speculation, as to when an eruption might start and when it might stop, but there are no heated debates about volcanoes. They are as easy to talk about as football or a war against aliens.

When the opportunity presents itself, news media enthusiastically cover any and all conceivable sides of a potential eruption—the number of quakes today, their sizes compared with yesterday’s quakes, how the coming eruption might compare with historical eruptions, which flights might be cancelled, which flight routes might be changed—headline after headline, for weeks on end, without anything having actually happened. And, perhaps no less importantly: without any figure of authority directing a temper tantrum at the reporters, trying to get them fired and so on.

There is more to say about the matter, but in short, if I may verb a little: Volcanoes fit the way we use language like magma fits its magma chamber. Which leaves this estimate of public opinion at 3:1 pro-volcanist.

Feelings are mixed, for sure. Most people would rather avoid apocalyptic events. Volcanic eruptions have, however, come to be seen as 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.

Who would refuse those odds?

No, you’re not crazy. An earlier, kinda different version of this article originally appeared HERE

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