Iceland’s Laki Fissure Eruption of 1783


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Environmental Impacts of the Laki Fissure Eruption

Because the Laki eruption took place within an era and a geographic location in which written records were kept, researchers know a lot about the environmental impacts. They were extensive: it’s been described on the The Naked Scientist podcast as ‘the biggest atmospheric pollution event in history.’ Benjamin Franklin, at the time living in Paris, wrote of the ‘constant fog’ which shrouded Europe and North America.

The fog was not the only outcome. The vast quantity of sulphur dioxide which found its way into the atmosphere created acid rain in parts of northern Europe. The eruption also seems to have interfered with climate patterns: in North America, climate records show that the years 1784-86 were abnormally cold – although in Europe the summer of 1783 was exceptionally hot and in Japan, unseasonably wet.

In Iceland, the impacts were particularly severe as concentrations of poisonous gases acted upon the local population and livestock within only few days. Vegetation also became poisoned by the gases and volcanic fallout. The result was famine: estimates suggest that the final toll was up to 75% of all the livestock in Iceland and possibly also a quarter of its population.

The famine took hold elsewhere, with reports of crops failing in Sweden. In addition, the toxic atmospheric gases proved fatal to large numbers of people, with Dr John Grattan of the University of Aberystwyth (quoted by The Naked Scientist) stating a figure of ‘something like 20,000 extra people’ dying in the summer of 1783. Although there are no accurate figures, the death toll worldwide must have been significant.

The cause of all this turmoil, as with the transport problems caused by Eyafjallajokull in 2010, was the eruption of a vast quantity of volcanic particles to a level at which they were carried into the atmosphere, in such volumes that they were eventually borne all round the northern hemisphere. Gases such as sulphur dioxide and hydrogen fluoride were produced in enormous quantities.

Had air transport been around in 1783, the level of disruption would have been much greater and lasted for much longer than was the case in 2010 and 2011. Such major eruptions demonstrate that, no matter how sophisticated human civilization may be, the awesome power of a volcanically-driven Earth is not something that human beings can easily control.


Allaby, Michael (ed)  A Dictionary of Earth Sciences. Oxford University Press, 2008. Oxford Reference Online.
Open University Course Team Earth and Life: The Dynamic Earth (1997).
Smithsonian Institute “Global Volcanism Program.” accessed 28 May 2011.
Grattan, John, (University of Aberystwyth) Naked Science Podcast. Accessed 28 May 2011.

This article originally appeared on Suite 101

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