A Big Eruption in Iceland Could Kill Tens of Thousands in Europe, Model Predicts

By Veronique Greenwood | September 20, 2011 2:01 pm

The Laki fissure’s eruption in Iceland was behind tens of thousands of deaths in the 1780s.

What’s the News: Iceland’s busy volcanoes have caused their share of air traffic snafus in Europe lately, but they have the potential to be deadly, not just inconvenient. A new model examining how air quality would change should the volcanoes erupt as spectacularly as they occasionally have in the past suggests that increased particulates in the air could kill more than 140,000 people in Europe in the year following the eruption.

How the Heck:

  • Drawing on their knowledge of the catastrophic Laki eruption of 1783, the researchers specified an eruption that lasted for 8 months. Using weather models, they traced where aerosols blown into the air above Iceland would drift over the next year and estimated the concentration of particles of a particularly dangerous size, <2.5 micrometers, over Europe. These tiny particles damage the lungs when breathed in and result in strain to the heart.
  • In their model, the concentration of aerosols leapt by 120%, and while northwestern Europe and Iceland were hardest hit, southern Europe still saw its particulates climb by 60%. All told, their model predicts the deaths of 142,000 people from heart and lung disease in the first year after the eruption. The authors note that that’s twice the number of people who die from the flu each year.

What’s the Context:

  • An eruption this size is fairly rare—the ones stopping air traffic in Europe are minuscule compared to this. But at least four such eruptions have occurred in the last 1,150 years, the researchers say, which, on a human timeframe, is a substantial number.
  • A Laki-sized eruption would not only ground flights for six months, it would have a huge effect on agriculture and daily life in Europe. The 1783 eruption, through air pollution and poisonous gases, killed at least a fifth of the people and half the livestock in Iceland. The subsequent famine killed even more. The number of deaths in the rest of Europe attributable to Laki’s eruption is less easy to suss out, but death rates in England spiked in the months after, parish records show.
  • Europe is far more heavily populated now than it was then, meaning that if the 18th-century eruption was bad, a similar one today could be truly catastrophic.

Reference: A. Schmidt, et al. Excess mortality in Europe following a future Laki-style Icelandic eruption. PNAS Early Edition (2011).

[via ScienceNOW]
Image courtesy of Chmee2 / Wikimedia Commons

  • Brian Too

    I wonder if their death rates might be a little overstated in the present day. Mass protection measures against SO2 are problematic to be sure. However widespread distribution of N95 or N99 masks is feasible, as is minimizing outdoor exposure.

    It wouldn’t be easy and the knowledge and equipment availability for the first few weeks would be poor. However as the months pass this could be overcome.

  • Adam Laceky

    It’s spelled “minuscule,” not “miniscule.” You’re welcome.

  • Catherine

    I saw a documentery on the history chanell a few yrs ago th at said the 1783 eruption triggered a little ice age, summers were cooler across Europe & famine struck where crops couldn’t grow. Was that true & could another such eruption trigger another little ice age?

  • Cory

    @Catherine: These events are possible at any time. A major eruption could aerosolize enough crustal matter to blanket the Earth in to a new Ice Age. However, the likelihood of a major eruption which influences global environment is very low. Eventually, in human existence, we will experience a life-changing event, be it from a meteor, volcano, earthquake, tsunami, you name it; but there isn’t any point in worrying about it until it happens :)


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