Europe's age of inferno: How a volcano swallowed the Western world

Science writer Alexandra Witze talks to Salon about one of modern history's deadliest natural diasters

Published January 2, 2015 11:58AM (EST)

The Laki Crater in Iceland.    (<a href=''>Rudolf Tepfenhart</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
The Laki Crater in Iceland. (Rudolf Tepfenhart via Shutterstock)

In June 1783, a volcano erupted in Iceland that sent all of Europe reeling.

Laki, the country's largest volcano, spewed ash into the atmosphere for eight long months, poisoning everything it touched. The famine that resulted killed off one-fifth of the population of Iceland, along with half of its livestock. But its impact wasn't contained to the isolated nation: A mysterious fog began to descend upon the U.K. and France, and then onward to Switzerland, Germany and northern and central Italy (some accounts claim it spread as far a North America). The haze was impossible to ignore. It dimmed the stars, made it difficult to breathe, killed grass and trees and crops and people, and brought with it an "intolerable" heat and catastrophic storms. With winter came a reversal, just as extreme: The continent froze and, come spring, flooded in a manner of hours.

It was, by all definitions, an unprecedented disaster. Some even argue that the unrest it created contributed to the start of the French Revolution. And yet, strangely enough, it's been largely forgotten.

Science writers Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe explore the story of Laki and other world-changing eruptions in their book, "An Island on Fire." And they make a compelling case for why, spectacle aside, they deserve our close attention. Salon's conversation with Witze, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

It was fascinating reading your account of the Laki eruption, especially because I had never heard about it before. Do you have any thoughts about why this hasn't become the stuff of legends, the way, say, Vesuvius has?

Well, we're certainly hoping to change that a bit, but a think a lot of it has to do with where and when the eruption happened. This was back in the 18th century, in a fairly remote part of the world. When things like Vesuvius go off, I mean, it's right smack in the middle of Europe, so there are a lot of people around, a lot of people writing about it, and observing it and kind of checking it out. But Iceland at the time was just really rural: It was a whole bunch of farmers and a bunch of fishermen, and they weren't really connected to the rest of Europe. They were under the Danish crown at the time, so Copenhagen would occasionally pay attention to what they were doing, but it was really just out of sight and out of mind for a lot of people in Europe and elsewhere.

What's crazy about that is that, as you write, there's reason to believe that its effects spread almost everywhere -- so people were aware that something had happened.

Right, exactly. So you can imagine if you were living in France or in Germany, or in England, and you're just going about your daily business, and all of a sudden things start to get really... you see this weird haze descend across the countryside, and everything is kind of murky and white and maybe sometimes it smells a little bit like sulfur and you really have no idea why. And it kind of just goes on and on for months, and eventually you must start to think, hey, where is this coming from? What could be causing it? And that's actually why Laki became this big scientific puzzle.

How long did it take people to figure out that there was a connection?

It was pretty much that summer. The person who gets most credit for figuring it out was Ben Franklin. The volcano itself started erupting at the start of June, and then throughout that summer and fall and into the next winter, Franklin was thinking about it and wondering where this all came from. And it was within the first couple of months after Laki started to erupt that he proposed that maybe this smoke and fog was coming from an Icelandic volcano. There were some other folks who said this, too, at the same time -- some Icelandic and some German scientists offered that, hey, maybe this is coming from a volcano in Iceland.

Was it disputed at the time? Did people have trouble accepting that?

Yeah, I think they did, just because nobody really knew that you could have these long-distance impacts. There were a lot of other ideas going around. Some of them were super-crazy. For example, lightning rods had just started to be introduced, to try and save houses from getting struck by lightning, so there was this weird weather and people were like, well, maybe the weird weather is because we have all these lightning rods around now. Like, maybe this fog has something to do with electricity in the atmosphere. And some people just basically gave up and were like, it's some sign from God that we're doing something wrong.

So yeah, it was not really well accepted for a while, because it was just a crazy idea to think, if you're living in France or England, that something as far away as this remote volcano up in the north Atlantic could change your daily life.

You cite this interesting idea in the book, that this marked the beginning of when people began to think globally about the climate...

Yeah, and people have made that argument for other volcanic eruptions, too. There's a book that came out this year as well about the Tambora eruption, which happened in 1815 -- so that was a couple of decades after Laki, and that had global climate effects. And then in 1883, in Indonesia, you had the Krakatoa eruption, which is really famous because so many people were living at the time, and they witnessed this massive eruption. But we like to argue that Laki was kind of the beginning of all these, kind of the forerunner; that really it was the awakening that something so remote could have a global impact. 

What are some of the implications of that, as you see it?

The implications are really just to be aware, on a planetary scale, of the kind of stuff that could happen. Just to know that things you don't think are important or that you think might not affect your daily life might actually do so. I mean, your crops may end up failing, and you might not be able to grow the wheat and get the bread that you want, because of something that happens halfway around the world. The bigger lessons here, I think, are that we're all interconnected.

Do we know a lot more about the effects of eruptions now? I think about geoengineering, and this controversial idea that we could mimic the effects of volcanoes to maybe counteract global warming, and it seems like there are so many consequences that can come from that that we're not even completely aware of. 

I haven't run into too many people who think that's a great idea. This all boils back to the fact that if you spray enough particles into the atmosphere, they'll reflect the sun's rays and cool the planet beneath, and that's what happened with Laki. It put out so much sulfur that they acted like a giant sunshade and reflected the sunlight back up. And yeah, I mean, I think there really are lessons from these volcanic eruptions for what we should be doing with geoengineering. Because if you start spraying this stuff up into the atmosphere, all sorts of consequences start to come from that. One of the things about the Laki eruption was that the aerosols spread across the Northern Hemisphere, and they cooled stuff down, and one of the things they did was basically, they cooled the landmass of Africa so much that you didn't have this big temperature differential between the ocean and the land, and what that meant was that you didn't get the monsoons. So the monsoons failed, and you had drought across northern Africa, and you had starvation in places like Egypt, and it was all because those particles from Laki were throwing around the Northern Hemisphere.

So if we're going to start spraying particles into the air, we have to think, what is this going to mean for rainfall for someone who really depends on it?

You go through this hypothetical about what would happen were there an explosion like that today, and it's pretty dire. Would you argue that there's a lot more we should be doing to prepare for something like that happening? 

I don't want to run out there and say, like, we're all going to die tomorrow from a volcanic eruption, but we need to do stuff to prepare that makes us more resilient to natural disasters as a whole. In 2010, when the unpronounceable volcano erupted, and that ash went everywhere and shut everything down, no one expected that was going to happen. And so if we'd been a little bit more prepared in terms of not relying so much on air transport for absolutely everything... It's just a question of resilience, which is also important when you talk about stuff like facing climate change. If we have more rain, if we have more droughts, if we have a volcanic eruption interrupting our daily lives, it's all part of building this network of resilience. Policy people like to talk about that as a buzzword, but I do think it's really important.

I just want to add, we had this hypothetical at the end of the book, since we were just trying to spin off this 2010 eruption, and what it means, but right now there's an eruption going on in Iceland that started at the end of August, and it's the biggest eruption there since Laki [you can see it via a live webcam here]. One of the key things about it has been that it's putting out a lot of sulfur. Now, not nearly as much as we had in Laki in 1783 -- the eruption that's going on right now is about one-tenth as much sulfur -- but people around Iceland are having trouble breathing. So when we talk about hospitals needing to have respirators or things to help people cope if they're breathing in sulfur every day, that's actually happening in Iceland right now.

There's reason to believe climate change could make eruptions in those colder regions more likely, right?

That's a big area of research right now, the idea of course being that if you melt away the ice, the crust basically rebounds and gets higher, and it increases the amount of magma underneath. And this has actually been shown, that there's more magma being produced under Iceland since the end of the last ice age. So yeah, there are volcanologists who say that as we lose ice on top of all of these volcanos, we may actually get more eruptions in the future.

How are we doing on monitoring for future eruptions?

It totally depends on where you are in the world. So Iceland is great at monitoring volcanoes, because they're a tiny country, they're really technologically adept. There's a big monitoring project going on right now that the European Union funded after the whole 2010 meltdown, so they've got instruments all over Iceland right now. But if you're talking about places like Indonesia, which is the most volcanically active country in the world, some volcanoes have a lot of monitoring, and some just don't.

And in countries that are even more remote, it can be even more difficult. Right now there's an eruption going on in the Cape Verde islands in the Atlantic -- try doing a Google image search on that, recently there was a lava flow that basically swallowed a whole village. You've got this tiny little remote village, and all the houses are gone and everybody's homeless now. So it all depends where you are and how good you are at coping with volcanic eruptions and what they can do to you.

It kind of underscores the idea that, yeah, a supervolcano could mean the end of the world, but these are the kinds of things that people can expect and need to be able to prepare for. 

Yeah, I absolutely think you're right on that, because people freak out about the Yellowstone supervolcano, but the things that are really going to bother us and affect us from day to day are things like what we saw in 2010, or the volcano swallowing the town, or if something like Laki went off again. And actually right now, with the people in Iceland who are having trouble breathing because of this ongoing eruption. That's the kind of stuff we have to think about -- I'm not lying awake thinking about the Yellowstone supervolcano going off.

That was one of my questions! What keeps you up at night?

Yellowstone doesn't keep me up. It was really interesting when this new eruption started happening in Iceland this fall, because it was basically like Laki all over again, just at a much smaller scale. So I've sort of been watching and waiting and seeing, is it going to get bigger? Is is going to go anywhere? Is it going to have a climatic effect? Right now it's still too small to affect the climate, but who knows where it's going to go.

By Lindsay Abrams

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Climate Change Extreme Weather Natural Disasters Volcanoes Yellowstone Supervolcano