That headline sounds like something from a science fiction movie, but this is exactly what happened. In 1783 a chain of craters known as Lakagígar, or the craters of Laki, erupted. Although the Laki eruption is well known in Iceland, it is not widely known across the rest of Europe. I’ll get to the reason for this later, but first let me tell you how it all started.
On 6th June 1783 the Laki fissure erupted and continued erupting for six months. A fissure is a chain of craters that explodes in a line. The Laki fissure is massive, being approximately 23 kilometers long and 1000 feet wide. Although there was an enormous amount of lava with this event I don’t believe the flow had a great impact on the population of Iceland.
To put this event in perspective in 1991 Mount Pinatubo erupted. It blasted so much debris into the atmosphere world temperatures dropped by approximately one degree, affecting global weather systems for years. Every three days Laki spewed gas and debris equivalent to the Mount Pinatubo eruption.
Laki created 120 million tons of sulphur dioxide, which was blown across Northern Europe. The poisonous cloud was reported in Bergen, Prague, Berlin, Paris, La Harve and by 22nd June 1783 it had completely engulfed England.
That summer was unusually hot. Although this was not caused by the eruption it worsened the effects.
British naturalist Gilbert White described that summer in his classic Natural History of Selborne as "an amazing and portentous one … the peculiar haze, or smokey fog, that prevailed for many weeks in this island, and in every part of Europe, and even beyond its limits, was a most extraordinary appearance, unlike anything known within the memory of man.
"The sun, at noon, looked as blank as a clouded moon, and shed a rust-coloured ferruginous light on the ground, and floors of rooms; but was particularly lurid and blood-coloured at rising and setting. At the same time the heat was so intense that butchers' meat could hardly be eaten on the day after it was killed; and the flies swarmed so in the lanes and hedges that they rendered the horses half frantic … the country people began to look with a superstitious awe, at the red, louring aspect of the sun."
When the cloud mixed with the moisture in the atmosphere it transformed into sulphuric acid rain, destroying crops. Laborers working in the fields dropped dead when the gas combined with the moisture in their lungs, melting them. (It must’ve been a horrible way to die.)
Iceland was devastated. Between a third and a quarter of Iceland’s population perished either from the effects of the eruption or the famine that followed. (Reports vary, but at least 10,000 people died.)
In England, it is estimated that 23,000 people died between June 1783 and February 1784, when the eruption stopped. And it is believed that a further 8000 died because of the devastatingly cold volcanic winter and the resulting famine.
Of course an eruption of this size had a huge impact on global temperatures. In North America the Delaware River froze at Philadelphia, the harbor at Charleston, South Carolina froze and the Mississippi froze at New Orleans
This was a cataclysmic event that effected a large portion of the population so why is so little known about it outside Iceland. I can’t really speak for the other countries in Northern Europe, but in England, newspapers of the time only catered to the rich and literate. Not the poor farm laborers who were dying in the fields, they didn’t seem to matter so, it wasn’t reported.
There are scholars who blame the French Revolution of 1789 on the Laki Event. This makes sense when you consider that global temperatures were affected for years, causing food shortages, particularly in Europe.
It is hard not to remember the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajokul, which caused a halt in air traffic across Northern Europe for several weeks. By Icelandic standards this was a relatively small eruption. The president of Iceland, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, addressed the world, warning European officials that they should prepare for future eruptions. At the time of the 1783 eruption England’s population was estimated at 6.5 million, today it is approximately 56 million. If the same poisonous cloud were to cover Europe today how much worse would the death toll be?