On 8th June, 1783, the earth split open.....
On 8th June, 1783, the earth split open. Close to the Grimsvotn volcano in the south of Iceland, a fissure some 16 miles long belched forth endless volumes of molten rock which devoured everything in its path. Equally lethal, the fissure, named Laki, and Grimsvotn, now also erupting, emitted thousands of tons of poisonous gases. The chemical compounds dissolved in cloud to form sulphuric acid. Within hours Laki had produced a cover of acid rain, which spread over Iceland, and, carried by weather systems, moved inexorably south-east towards Europe.
Two days later, ships travelling to Denmark were covered in black ash; in Bergen, the ash withered grass and leaves. The sun disappeared – a phenomenon which became known as the “Laki haze” – and European temperatures fell. Scandanavian capital cities, the nearest cities to Iceland, saw winter temperatures drop by 3* C; the summers were the coldest for several hundred years.
The effects on human and animal populations may be imagined. In Iceland “the snouts, nostrils and feet of livestock grazing or walking on the grass turned bright yellow and raw” wrote one observer (the effect of hydrogen fluoride poisoning). Nearly all the sheep died, and at least half the island’s cattle and horses. In addition inhaling sulphur dioxide gas causes victims to choke as their internal soft tissues swell; the gas reacts with the moisture in lungs to make sulphuric acid. Poisoning compounded with famine; a quarter of the human population died.
Laki disrupted weather patterns globally. It affected monsoon rains in Africa and India, and the Japanese rice harvest. The human toll was colossal, and the years of climatic disruption which followed had social consequences too. Years of poor harvests helped to precipitate the French Revolution in 1789.
In Shetland mostly the effects went unrecorded; the bad years were certainly remembered, but famine was averted by grain shipments from Scotland, island food reserves having been exhausted. Contemporary records show that families who were normally able to sustain themselves through the winter could no longer do so. The fishing was badly affected; there must have been many deaths from respiratory illness and general debility at a time of universal stress.
Laki’s effects gradually diminished. Grimsvotn stopped erupting in 1785; Laki had already quieted. The sun regained its strength. Regeneration, natural and societal, began. Laki was, fortunately, although catastrophic, finite.
Today we face an environmental crisis which is radically different. It will not stop; in fact we are close to the point at which global warming becomes unstoppable. The answer to this lies in each individual household, and the answer is a major modification of lifestyle – notably the abandonment of fossil fuel use. To many, this is unthinkable. But if we do not, then babies born now are unlikely to live a full lifespan, and may, like those who saw the dirty skies of Laki and the desperate agonised animals, die slowly, and our living planet with them.