Resource/news: The Laki Haze in 1783, or why grounded planes are not the worst case scenario

18 April, 2010 at 9:46 pm 1 comment

To our planet, a hundred, a thousand or even a million years are nothing. Nature doesn’t carry a watch. Nature doesn’t care about flight schedules, meetings and holidays.

In our time and age, where everything seems to be possible and manageable, where we are used to get information at the click of a button and there really seems to be no limit to what we can do and achieve, it’s important not to forget about those facts. We can build dams and regulate rivers, use the power of the wind to generate energy, change the surface of the earth and pollute the air, but there are limits. We can’t prevent earthquakes. We can’t keep a volcano from erupting. But what we can do is being aware of our limitations.

A week of being stranded away from home can feel like eternity. I really don’t want to downplay the inconveniences people experience who can’t travel at the moment due to the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano on Iceland, but we shouldn’t forget that flight disruptions are really not the worst thing that could happen to us as a consequence of a volcanic eruption. Actually, we can count ourselves lucky here, and we don’t even have to go back thousands of years in time to find an example for a case of “could have been worse” – actually, we only have to go back to the year 1783.

“(…) The summer of the year 1783 was an amazing and portentous one, and full of horrible phaenomena; for besides the alarming meteors and tremendous thunder-storms that affrighted and distressed the different counties of this kingdom, the peculiar haze, or smokey fog, 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.

By my journal I find that I had noticed this strange occurrence from June 23 to July 20 inclusive, during which period the wind varied to every quarter without making any alteration in the air. The sun, at noon, looked as blank as a clouded moon, and shed a rust- coloured ferruginous light on the ground, and floors of rooms; but was particularly lurid and blood-coloured at rising and setting.

All the time the heat was so intense that butchers’ meat could hardly be eaten on the day after it was killed; and the flies swarmed so in the lanes and hedges that they rendered the horses half frantic, and riding irksome. The country people began to look with a superstitious awe, at the red, louring aspect of the sun (…)”
– Gilbert White, 1789

Clergyman White, a dedicated naturalist, wrote those powerful words in 1789, and they don’t fail to impress us even today.

But what had caused such unusual and frightening happenings in Britain?

In June 1783, the Laki volcanic fissure in Iceland erupted, and spew lava until February 1784, sending ashes and toxic fumes into the atmosphere – enough lava to cover all of modern London under a 30ft layer. Laki released every three days the same amount of gases as Mount Pinatubo, one of the biggest volcanic eruptions in the 20th century, released during the complete duration of its activity in 1991.

This means that an estimated 120 million tons (!!!) of sulphur dioxide ended up in the moisture-rich atmosphere of the North Atlantic, where they were transformed into sulphuric acid. Under normal weather conditions, this toxic cloud and later fog would have been directed to the uninhabited (at least by humans) north, but as the summer of 1783 was one of the hottest in records, conditions were different. They were perfect for the distribution of the cloud all over northern Europe.

On 22 June, 1783, the toxic fog – the “Laki Haze” – arrived in Britain. It was distinctive, pervasive, and many ships were kept in port, because they simply couldn’t navigate through it. The nights brought severe frost, and though the papers tried to be calm and rational about the phenomenon, “ordinary folks” were scared. It’s not difficult to see why: the smell of sulphur in the air, the blood-red sunrise and the clouded sun must have looked to them like signs that Judgement Day was close. And worse was to come: people exposed to the poisonous fog, especially those doing hard work on the fields, began to get sick. The sulphuric acid corroded the tissue of their lungs, and they died agonising deaths.

It weren’t only people in Britain who suffered, though; all of Europe experienced the same terrible disaster. One record from France registered that 1/3 of the population in a province died, that people were “swept to their tombs”. Villagers, convinced by the stench of sulphur that the fog was created by the devil and inhabited by demons, put the local priest under pressure to perform an exorcism on the cloud.

From the death records of Bedfordshire, a British scientist got the data to calculate the number of deaths caused by the Laki Haze. So many people died, farmers had difficulties to collect their harvests. The death rate in Bedfordshire doubled in the autumn of 1783, and from the records, one can estimate that 23’000 people lost their lives in Britain. Compared to today’s number of population, that would be about 100’000 people.

That wasn’t all, though: as a consequence of the ashes’ and gases’ influence on the climate, the whole continent was wrecked with horrible storms, torrential rains, flash floods and hail storms with hail stones large enough to kill livestock. This was followed by a terrible, harsh winter; colder and longer-lasting than anybody could remember. The sulphuric acid in the atmosphere “reflected” the sunlight back into space; it never reached the ground. This lead to a drop in temperature, and as a consequence, an additional 8’000 people more than during an average winter died. There was snow “up to a horse’s belly” in April, as Gilbert White noted. And when spring finally came, there were devastating floods.

But what about Iceland?

When Laki finally ceased to erupt in February of 1784, 8 million tons of fluorine had been blown in the air. Mixed with ashes, it rained down on the ground, was eaten by livestock. This killed 80% of Iceland’s sheep, and more than half of all cows and horses. Those who had survived the volcano were now about to starve. People were so desperate, they’d cook animal skins and even book covers made from leather to get some nutrition. Of course this didn’t help, and the mass graves began to fill up. 10’000 people died in Iceland as a consequence of the Laki disaster – 1/4 of the countries population.

The consequences for Europe went beyond poisoning and starvation, though. Lack of food causes unrest and encourages people to move away and find a better life elsewhere. So it’s not too far-fetched to say that the “Laki Haze” was a contributing factor to the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 and mass emigration from Europe to the USA.

And today? Today John Cleese takes a cab for £ 3’000 to get back home and the press whines about possible “food shortages” because grapes might not be available next week. Looks like we have lost all perspective. We’re part of nature, we live on this earth here, and at the end of the day, we have as little control over and are as exposed to the forces of nature today as people were back in 1783.

I recommend to you the BBC documentation “Timewatch: Killer Cloud” about the Laki Haze.

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Entry filed under: 18th century, news, resource. Tags: , , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • […] British cleric Gilbert White recorded the misery: The summer of the year 1783 was an amazing and portentous one, and full of horrible phaenomena; for besides the alarming meteors and tremendous thunder-storms that affrighted and distressed the different counties of this kingdom, the peculiar haze, or smokey fog, 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…. […]

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