Icelandic Volcanoes–Disrupting Weather & History Since 1783

By Aline Reynolds | April 16, 2010 12:58 pm

Prominent_plumeIf past is prelude, then the volcanic eruption in Iceland whose plume of ash has grounded almost 300 flights across Europe may not only affect air travel in the coming days, it may also have a lingering impact on Europe’s weather. Experts are looking back to the aftereffects of a previous eruption–when the Laki volcano in Southern Iceland exploded more than 200 years ago. That explosion had catastrophic consequences for weather, agriculture and transport across the northern hemisphere – and helped trigger the French revolution [The Guardian].

The Laki volcanic fissure erupted over a eight month period between June 1783 and February 1784. Within Iceland, the lava and poisonous clouds of gas ushered in a time known as the “Mist Hardships”: farmland was ruined, livestock died in vast numbers, and the resultant famine killed almost a quarter of the population.

The eruption’s impact wasn’t confined to Iceland alone. Dust and sulfur particles thrown up by the explosion were carried as a haze across Northern Europe, clouding the skies in Norway, the Netherlands, the British Isles, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. In conjunction with another volcanic eruption and an unusually strong El Nino weather pattern, the Laki eruption is thought to have contributed to extreme weather across Europe for the next several years.

Describing the summer of 1783 in his classic Natural History of Selborne, British naturalist Gilbert White wrote it was  “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 Guardian]. Gilbert wrote that the haze blanked out the sun at midday, that it was “particularly lurid and blood-colored at rising and setting,” and that the heat was so intense that “butcher’s meat could hardly be eaten on the same day after it was killed.” This bizarre summer was followed by an usually harsh winter, historians say. Environmental historians have also pointed to the disruption caused to the economies of northern Europe, where food poverty was a major factor in the build-up to the French revolution of 1789 [The Guardian].

Experts observing this week’s volcanic eruption at Eyjafjallajökull (pronounced AY-ya-fyat-la-yo-kult) say that while the scale of crisis may not be the same, continued eruptions at the spot could cool temperatures in Northern Europe. Richard Wunderman, a volcanologist with the Smithsonian Institution’s Global Volcanism Program said the volcanic plume contains a lot of sulfur “that can become an aerosol up there that hangs around a long time reflecting sunlight” [The New York Times], creating a regional “volcano weather” effect.

But a bigger concern lurks nearby. Just a few kilometers to the east of the erupting vent is a much bigger and potentially more dangerous volcano called Katla. In the past, when Eyjafjallajökull erupted, Katla did too. So scientists are closely monitoring Katla to see if it, too, might go [Science News].

The one bright spot in the current explosion, say scientists, is that there may be enough aerosols in the atmosphere to cause brilliant red sunsets across Europe.

Related Content:
80beats: Volcanic Eruption in Iceland Causes Floods, Shuts Down European Air Travel
Bad Astronomy: Iceland Volcano Eruption Making an Ash of Itself
DISCOVER: Disaster! The Most Destructive Volcanic Eruptions in History (photo gallery)
DISCOVER: World Versus the Volcano, how massive eruptions leave the world cold and hungry
80beats: Three Miles Down in the Carribean, the Deepest Volcanic Vents Ever Seen
80beats: Volcanoes on Venus Could Be Alive and Ready To Erupt
80beats: Congo Volcanic Eruption Threatens To Surround Native Chimps with Lava

Image: NASA/MODIS Rapid Response Team

  • CharlesDarwin

    Quick, someone call Al Gore and advise him of this!

  • Daniel J. Andrews

    James Hansen’s early climatic model in the 1980s factored in a large eruption, and the model showed global cooling before warming reasserted itself. A few years later Mt. Pinatubo erupted, and the temperature drop and subsequent warming matched the output of Hansen’s model. So Gore already knows as unlike most people with an opinion on the subject he tries to keep up-to-date on the science (that includes correcting errors when the scientists tell him he’s misunderstood something–corrections you won’t see from copy-paste commenters, antiscience websites, talk show hosts, clown weathermen, and Faux News).

    For background, read Spencer Weart’s Discovery of Global Warming. It’s online, free, and it is a great resource to keep from embarrassing yourself.

  • m

    Checked out the site.

    a poor resource. many of the links ignore basic physics, and not a single one of the 10 I tried mentioned water vapour as the true GHG. It’s a very poor model when water is ignored.

  • Derek

    Wouldn’t that fact that thousands of planes have been grounded for several days now counter-act all the sulfur being emitted into the atmosphere by the volcano? I’d assume that all the GHGs emitted by airplanes flying over europe on a dialy basis come close to what the volcano is putting out.

  • http://none datorraine

    I’m a simple pedestrian here. But suspected, before reading this article, that with a little more sustained volcanic eruption Europe may be in for a weather challenged life on this planet. Reading this article informed me proving (to me) that my instinct was spot on. All one needs is a little common sense and some technology to figure out a way to be in the world. I will go on now to research the famine that happened 1783 and check out the weather stuff through out the years to 1989 not only France but other Northern European countries… about the globe. When I’m finished I will have found a way to deliver this information to my Afro-centric, Multi-cultural community here US. (Guess I will tie in the $$ impact stuff). We just need to keep connecting the dots…. around the world. Good job on this article.

  • http://none datorraine

    I’m a simple pedestrian here. But suspected, before reading this article, that with a little more sustained volcanic eruption Europe may be in for a weather challenged life on this planet. Reading this article informed me proving (to me) that my instinct was spot on. All one needs is a little common sense and some technology to figure out a way to be in the world. Now I will go on to research the famine and check out the weather stuff that happened between the years 1783- 1789 in France and other Northern European countries … about the globe? When I’m finished I will have found a way circulate this information through my Afro-centric, Multi-cultural community here in the US. (Guess I will tie in the $$ impact stuff). We just need to keep connecting the dots…. around the world. Good job on this article.

  • sati

    how many people will be comfortable to fly in this disaster environment? probably no one.

  • carddan

    I appreciated this article. Even while mentioning climate changing events, it did not stray into the area of anthropogenic factors.

  • eddytoronto

    Throw the Bankers in The Volcano. This will make the Gods very Happy . Yes the Volcano will sleep again!…..θυσία

  • Alex

    “Quick, someone call Al Gore and advise him of this!”

    Very funny. nooooot.

    If the vulcano would erupt forever the earth would die from the amount of pollution it would create. at least all inhabitants called humans.

    My point is that humans are now polluting more and more and this would equal maybe 3 vulcanos continiusly erupting.

    The earth can handle some vulcans but not by far vulcans + human pollution.

    What i want to see is more scientists who working for a solution to prepare europe and the world for these kind of events.

  • John

    Two events are currently underway, in my opinion. The first event is in the Philippines, where the entity that controls all climate on Earth is repeating the same event that happened in the Old Testament – where all rainfall was withheld for around three years.

    The Philippine Gov. did not believe a 2-Part message from the entity to man.

    It is very possible Germany may see snow in July this year. Again, this is just my opinion. I am just sharing this opinion with you. Only time can tell if both events become true.

  • Chris Bove’

    Earth Day just came and went. It’s all about saving the Earth, right? The good news is that the Earth will go on living until the Sun does it in. As for us, humans, well if are the problem then hopefully the Earth will change enough that we will die thus allowing the Earth to have a full recovery.

    If we are the cause, the disease, than we should be killed. My body, like the planet is alive. If a virus enters my body, in it’s defense, my body will create a hostel environment by increasing my the body’s temperature. We are the virus and if the planet must change to destroy us then so be it.

    I find the contradiction too astounding. Humans say they want to save the planet but what they fail to do is admit that the only real way to save the planet is to take people out of the picture. If people truly believe man is the cause than the cure is simple, death to man.

  • Jeff Mason

    First, I presume the weather channels and websites will put out much information on the topic. “Weather Spin,” as I call it, should be completely avoided and all documents leading to it should be destroyed. When, I hope, we have an honest account for the weather the data will speak for itself–our theories will then be provenn right or wrong. Second, the Earth is NOT a living thing. It is a scientific marvel though. Spinning rock inside lava, inside a crust. Very interesting indeed. Yet, not alive. Sorry. dirt doesn’t fight back, or talk back to me. When I engineer a landscape based on climate and accountable weather the landscape will thrive not die. Thus, human input does help in areas. I just have to kill the weeds. :)

  • Cameron

    Sorry Jeff – Rock spured of of volcanoes contain living bateria,and soil does fight back. Most soil comes from rock spured out of volcanoes that has broken down over millions of years. If we listen to it,it will tell you what it needs exactly to create outstanding results. Killing the weeds though poison? Poisons kill good bacteria that are essential for it’s health.

    No living bacteria in soil equals non sustanable food crops through pest invasion,disease and poor health,and (a lot like human health I suspect).

    The earth is a living thing. Maybe not as we humans term it, but certainly in the context of the thousands of natural cycles that take place on our earth and in our enviroment as we speak,- from all LIVING bacteria’s in soil that move and pulse to the earths magnetic forces (as humans do – no magnetic force = no life on earth) to the tree’s that clean our air and give off the oxygen that we humans breath.

    I know I raved on a bit here but I thought it may prompt some thought.

    Maybe if we treated the earth we live in as a living breathing part of our everyday lives and NURTURED and ENCOMPASSES all the beauty that it gives us, – we would not be in the poor enviromental state of decay we find ourselves in at the moment, through pollution and land degradation etc etc.

  • Duke

    I believe when the icelandic volcano finally erupts NY city will get snow and could be in the summer

  • http://uk Dave G

    December and freezing weather here in the UK, how much of this can be attributed to the Icelandic volcanoes?

  • Pula

    Air transportation suffers because of volcanic eruption, but this is nature and nature don’t ask


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