Deadly Laki Gas Fog Arrives
The 23rd of June 1783 AD
In 2010 Europe had a couple of weeks of transport chaos as the unpronounceable Eyjafjallajökull volcano spewed out gas and ash, for a time preventing flights. What happened in 1783 when quite near that one a host of craters erupted was on a completely different scale.
On June 8 that year a fissure opened up at Laki in southern Iceland, more than 100 craters forged by explosions as water met basalt magma. The eruption continued for eight months. Iceland lost an estimated 20 per cent of its population, partly through poisoning, partly the starvation that resulted from the withering of fodder and the death of food animals. But the effects were felt across Europe, and indeed in America where its climatic impact is epitomised by the Mississippi freezing that winter at New Orleans.
In Britain Gilbert White recorded the arrival of the gas cloud that had travelled a circuitous route before reaching our shores on June 23 1783. A fog covered the country from that day to July 20, the weather at that period unbearably hot - some theorise this was caused by the initial atmospheric warming effects of the ash and gases. In all it is thought that 20,000 died from poisoning caused by the Laki gas cloud. Around 120 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide were jetted into the atmosphere by Laki. In the fields of Britain that summer thousands of workers dropped dead, wiped out as sulphurous acid formed in lungs when their moisture reacted with the sulphur dioxide. When we cough we sometimes say lightly that we are choking, but as soft tissue swelled in the throats of those inhaling the stinking gases the choking from the outpourings of Laki was very real. Hailstones large enough to kill beasts in the field fell. The sun in the morning and at twilight was blood-red. The death toll in that initial phase is reckoned to be between 20,000 and 23,000. Then a very severe volcanic winter set in, claiming another 8,000 lives.
Which all gives pause for thought. A brief disruption to our travel plans can seem like a disaster at the time, but a truly huge eruption like that of Laki in 1783 could have devastating consequences even today – consider if you will that it may have been one of the peripheral causes of the French Revolution, as economic disruption and famine linked to the event created deep-seated resentment against the monarchy and aristocracy. War may be the locomotive of history, but volcanoes can produce more smoke.
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