The volcanic fissure of Lakagígar, Iceland

The volcanic fissure of Lakagígar, Iceland

Contributor: Tess Somervell

Location: Vatnajökull National Park, Iceland

Description: Lakagígar is a 27km-long volcanic fissure in Iceland. The name means ‘craters of Laki’, after Mount Laki, the highest point at the centre of the fissure. Lakagígar was formed through a huge eruption in 1783-4 that had massive environmental, social, and cultural consequences for Iceland and indeed the rest of Europe, and which leaves a record in early Romantic literature.

The eruption event is known in Icelandic as Skaftáreldar, or “Skaftá fires”, after the lava that flowed down the Skaftá river; but outside Iceland the event has taken the name ‘Laki’ or ‘the Laki eruption’, for ease of pronunciation. This is despite the fact that Mount Laki itself is long extinct and didn’t actually erupt in the ‘Laki eruption’; it was dozens of craters and vents in the Lakagígar fissure, part of the larger Grímsvötn volcanic system, that erupted in 1783.

The first ash clouds appeared on 8th June 1783, and the eruption event continued for the best part of 8 months until 7th February 1784. Lakagígar spewed over 120 megatons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, with devastating environmental effects. In Iceland, acid rain destroyed crops, animals died from eating grass poisoned with fluorine, and around a fifth of the country’s population perished from famine. The most important contemporary chronicler of the Laki eruption was Jón Steingrímsson, a Lutheran pastor whose eyewitness reports of the eruption and its effects are the basis for much of our modern understanding of Laki. ‘There are hardly words to describe how the sheep just withered away’, Steingrímsson wrote of the loss of livestock. ‘No one had the foresight to see that it would have been best to slaughter them all while they still had flesh on their bones’.

This period in Iceland is known as Móðuharðindin, ‘the Mist Hardship’ or ‘Famine of the Mist’. The sulfuric acid aerosols produced by the eruption created a dry fog or haze, which was visible from North America to central Asia during the summer of 1783, and was thick across Britain and mainland Europe. ‘We never see the Sun but shorn of his beams,’ wrote William Cowper on 29 June 1783, ‘the trees are scarce discernible at a mile’s distance, he [the sun] sets with the face of a red hot salamander, and rises (as I learn from report) with the same complexion.’ The ‘peculiar haze, or smokey fog,’ recalled Gilbert White a few years later, ‘that prevailed for many weeks in this island, and in every part of Europe, and even beyond its limits, was a most extraordinary appearance, unlike anything known within the memory of man.’ The hot, stormy summer of 1783 was followed by a freezing winter (although the extent to which this was caused by the Laki eruption is still disputed). It has been suggested that the subsequent crop failures and food shortages were contributing causes of the French Revolution.

But most people outside Iceland weren’t aware that this strange weather was caused by a volcanic eruption. News of the Laki eruption didn’t reach Copenhagen until September 1783, after the haze had dissipated. Even then only a handful of natural philosophers scattered through Europe, including Benjamin Franklin (then stationed in Paris), speculated about a possible connection between the weird weather and volcanic activity in Iceland. The Laki haze was more often associated with another catastrophe: the devastating earthquakes that had struck Italy in February and March 1783, killing between thirty and fifty thousand people. Horace Walpole wrote from Strawberry Hill on 1st August 1783 that these earthquakes had ‘occasioned some alteration that has extended faintly hither, and contributed to the heats and mists that have been so extraordinary.’

As the haze crossed national boundaries, the Laki eruption invited the witnesses of its effects to reflect upon the global nature of weather systems. In William Cowper’s The Task (composed 1783-4), Cowper conflates the ‘sickly’ sun of the Laki-induced haze, the Italian earthquakes, and the ‘Great Meteor’ of 18th August 1783 into one apocalyptic atmosphere for the whole planet:

Fires from beneath and meteors from above,
Portentous, unexampled, unexplained,
Have kindled beacons in the skies, and the old
And crazy earth has had her shaking fits
More frequent, and foregone her usual rest.
Is it a time to wrangle, when the props
And pillars of our planet seem to fail,
And nature with a dim and sickly eye
To wait the close of all?

(II.57-65)

Cowper was not aware that the atmospheric changes he witnessed were temporary; as far as he was concerned, the weird weather of 1783-4 was a sign of potentially permanent global climate change brought about by human sin. His attempts to explain and moralise climate change – and in particular the combination of urgency-for-reform and hopelessness that he articulates – might be familiar to us today. Facing an increasingly catastrophic future, we might look to literary responses to Laki to discover how past thinkers reacted to ‘a world that seems / To toll the death-bell to its own decease’ (The Task, II.50-51).

Date:  1783-84

Creator: The Mid-Atlantic Ridge

Media: Chmee2/Valtameri, ‘Sight to the central fissure of Laki volcano, Iceland’ (2009)

Media rights: Chmee2/Valtameri, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8113135

Object type: Vent complex of en echelon fissures either side of the hyaloclastite mountain Laki

References

Cowper, William. The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper. Ed. James King and Charles Ryskamp. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979-1986.

—. The Poems of William Cowper. Ed. John D. Baird and Charles Ryskamp. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980-95.

White, Gilbert. The Natural History of Selborne. Ed. Richard Mabey. London: Penguin, 1987.

Steingrímsson, Jón. Fires of the Earth: The Laki Eruption, 1783-1784. Trans. Keneva Kunz. Reykjavik: University of Iceland Press and the Nordic Volcanological Institute, 1998.

Walpole, Horace. The Letters of Horace Walpole, Earl of Orford. London: Richard Bentley, 1840.