Island on Fire: The Extraordinary Story of Laki, the Volcano that Turned Eighteenth-Century Europe Dark. By Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe. Profile Books; 224 pages; £10.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk
FOR most of history, volcanoes embodied the capacity of the natural world to wreak havoc on human societies. Recently though, global warming—invisible, subtle, the very opposite of volcanoes—has displaced them as the incarnation of environmental threat. Two recent books that show the influence of Vulcan’s children may reinstate volcanoes in the pantheon of climate problems.
The first, “Island on Fire”, looks at the extraordinary eruption of Laki, in Iceland, 230 years ago. The archetypical volcano blows the top off a mountain and spews lava for a few weeks. This one consists of a great rent in the ground, 30km long, and in June 1783 it yawned and stayed open for more than eight months, producing enough lava to bury Manhattan to the top of the Rockefeller Centre (pictured).
Laki was the first eruption to be written about in the diaries, newspapers and scientific papers that were then spreading fast among the newly literate classes of Europe. Gilbert White, an English naturalist, wrote about “the peculiar haze, or smoky fog…unlike anything known within the memory of man”. And Benjamin Franklin, in Paris to negotiate the treaty ending America’s war of independence, speculated that the exceptionally cold winter of 1783-84 might be connected with “the vast quantity of smoke, long continuing to issue during the summer from Hekla” (Iceland’s most notorious volcano). Franklin was among the first to link volcanic activity and climate change.
The most remarkable character in the story of Laki’s eruption is Jon Steingrimsson, a Lutheran pastor working locally. He nursed his congregation through the famine that followed the eruption when three-quarters of Iceland’s sheep died after ingesting the fluorine that poured out of the volcano. Steingrimsson left the most detailed eyewitness account of any eruption up to that time, in which he describes the falling ash being “as long and thick as a seal’s hair”, while gouts of molten lava splash on the earth “like cowpats”.
The eruption in 1815 at Tambora, east of Bali, left no such eyewitnesses. But the eruption, which reduced the height of the Tambora mountain by over a kilometre, left its mark in indirect ways. Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”, for example, was written while she was stuck indoors during the coldest and wettest Geneva summer on record, a result of the cooling effect that Tambora had round the world.
Gillen D’Arcy Wood, a professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, traces the eruption’s influence in the agricultural disaster that overwhelmed Yunnan province in south-west China from 1815 to 1818 and led famine-stricken farmers to adopt the most profitable crop then available—opium—giving the drug a toehold in Chinese society decades before the opium wars. He argues that Tambora disrupted the South Asian monsoon, producing both famine in Bengal and a new, more virulent strain of cholera, which led to a worldwide cholera pandemic in the early 1830s. (Another novel by Mary Shelley, “The Last Man”, about a plague-ridden world, is a response to the disease.)
Mr Wood also dates Britain’s futile 100-year obsession with a north-west passage from Europe to Asia via the Arctic to the temporary melting of Arctic ice that can accompany tropical volcanic eruptions. And he says Tambora contributed to the first great depression in America when east-coast farmers, struggling during the year they called “eighteen-hundred-and-froze-to-death”, headed to the Appalachians, and saw their livelihoods destroyed again when European wheat harvests rebounded but those in America did not.
The stories of Tambora and Laki are not only about disaster. The eruptions sparked the first sustained interest in climate science. After Tambora, for example, Heinrich Brandes, a mathematics professor in Breslau, produced the world’s first weather map. But the overwhelming impression from these books—the one on Tambora a history, that on Laki also a work of vulcanology—is that volcanoes have brought regional disaster, with global effects. The world experiences such massive eruptions about twice a century. The impact of volcanoes is not confined just to the past.