Sunday, May 18, 2014

Iceland’s Explosive History Lesson and Climate Change

Lava pours from a second fissure after the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in 2010. (Credit:  Boaworm via Wikimedia Commons)  Click to enlarge.
Island on Fire, a new book by Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe, details the local and global impact of Iceland's Laki volcanic eruption in 1783.  Hot ash and cinders burned skin and poisoned pastures.  At least one-fifth of Iceland’s population was killed, and half the country’s livestock wiped out.

“What made Laki particularly deadly – an insidious killer – was how long its eruption went on and what poisons it spat into the atmosphere,” they write.  “Over the course of eight months, Laki produced one of the largest lava flows in historic times - enough to bury Manhattan 250 metres deep.

“Over the first 12 days, it disgorged the equivalent of two Olympic swimming pools full of lava every second. Along with the lava came the gas:  Laki belched out an estimated 122 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide, 15 million tonnes of fluorine, and 7 million tonnes of chlorine.  It was one of the biggest atmospheric pollution events in the past 250 years.”

Often, not enough attention is paid to climatic issues in analyzing the course of historic events.  Witze and Kanipe say that as crops failed and famine spread in France, Laki could well have been an unseen player behind the French revolution of 1789 – in the same way that a prolonged drought in the eastern Mediterranean has, in part, driven events behind the uprising in Syria.

At the moment, although Laki is relatively quiet, Iceland’s volcanoes are becoming more active.  This, say the authors, is due in part to climate change.  As the country’s ice has melted, the overlying weight of ice on its volcanoes has been reduced, and the loss of ice is creating geological stresses in the crust beneath.

Iceland’s Explosive History Lesson

No comments:

Post a Comment