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A Historic Eruption

In Island on Fire, Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe put recent volcanic events into the context of the legendary 1783 eruption of Iceland's Laki.
Lava spews at Fimmvörduháls in Iceland. (Photo: bruce_mcadam/Flickr)

Lava spews at Fimmvörduháls in Iceland. (Photo: bruce_mcadam/Flickr)

Before Jón Steingrímsson was called to serve the village church in Kirkjubæjarklaustur, he’d already been run out of two parishes. The Icelandic priest had to leave his first church when his wife gave birth too soon after their marriage and then his second when a child from his wife’s first marriage accused the couple of murdering the boy’s late father. Steingrímsson and his wife hoped to find peace at Klaustur, as the little village is known, and for five years they did: Their farm flourished; two of their daughters enjoyed lavish weddings; the new parish seemed to love its new priest.

But on Pentecost Sunday in 1783, a volcano just north of the church erupted. Steingrímsson saw a dark cloud, and then for eight months watched as lava and poisonous gases spewed from Lakagígar. Laki, as the fissure came to be known, produced one of the worst volcanic eruptions in Iceland’s history. Some Icelanders died of direct exposure to the fumes, while one-fourth of the country died when the nation’s crops failed, livestock perished, and famine kicked in.

For Steingrímsson, the Laki eruption wasn’t just a natural disaster, but a theological trial. By the end of July, his own church was directly threatened by the volcanic activity. As the faithful of Klaustur gathered in their little church, lava lapping at the edge of their village, Steingrímsson preached his heart out, writing in his autobiography that “each and every person was without fear, asking His mercy and submitting to His will.” Miraculously, Klaustur was spared and Steingrímsson became forever known as “the Fire Priest.”

As the faithful of Klaustur gathered in their little church, lava lapping at the edge of their village, Steingrímsson preached his heart out, writing in his autobiography that "each and every person was without fear...."

Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe rely heavily on Jón Steingrímsson’s autobiography in their brilliant book Island on Fire: The Extraordinary Story of a Forgotten Volcano That Covered a Continent in Darkness. While Iceland’s volcanology became front-page news in 2010 when Eyjafjallajökull grounded flights across Europe for almost a week, Kanipe and Witze situate that recent eruption in the country’s tragic volcanic history and volatile geology.

Eyjafjallajökull was nothing compared to Laki, which not only devastated Iceland, but also released so much sulphur dioxide into the air that global temperatures were affected for years. Even Benjamin Franklin noticed the fallout from Laki, writing to a friend in May of 1784 about the dry fog he saw in France, where he was serving as America’s ambassador. Kanipe and Witze describe Laki’s global effects as “The Big Chill,” as temperatures and rainfall were altered throughout Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and possibly even South America.

Island on Fire acknowledges how difficult it is to assess historical damage. Even while there is a clear historical record of “freakish weather” in the year following the Laki eruption, some of it might not have resulted from the volcano. Witze and Kanipe survey the work of Rutgers scientist Alan Robock, who successfully predicted that Mount St. Helens would have no effect on the global climate, but who used computer modeling to approximate how Laki interfered with seasonal monsoons in India and throughout the African continent, causing droughts and famine that killed millions. But even in Robock’s analysis, other weather events might have contributed to the global famine, and the extent to which Laki’s sulphur dioxide emissions lowered global temperatures is unclear.

Volcanic fatalities are also extremely difficult to calculate. In a chapter called “Death by Volcano,” Witze and Kanipe outline the many ways by which volcanoes can cause human death: lava, of course, but also toxic gases and pyroclastic flows; ash that collapses the roofs of buildings; fast-moving rocks that smash automobiles and their occupants; snow and ice melts that flood rivers and surrounding regions; underwater explosions that can cause tsunamis; and all of the long-term, indirect effects of crop and livestock loss, climate change, and respiratory illnesses. With Laki, for instance, the famine deaths are obvious, but many of the 10,521 Icelanders who died in the three years after the volcanic eruption could also have died from fluorine poisoning.

Volcanic damage is hard to calculate, and easily underestimated. Another one of Iceland’s volcanoes, Bárðarbunga, erupted somewhat continuously between August 2014 and February, and the New York Times reported in January how difficult it is to forecast volcanic activity, not only when eruptions will occur, but also their magnitude and scale. The final chapter of Island on Fire offers a frank look at these forecasts, with some sober recommendations for regions that might consider themselves safe from any fallout.

Just as the Laki eruption went far, far beyond Jón Steingrímsson’s tiny church and fiery pulpit in a little Icelandic village, Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe argue there are many other active Lakis whose eruptions could do the same today.