A Deadlier Volcanic Blast To Come?

An airport vehicle on an empty runway in Edinburgh. i i

hide captionAn empty runway at Edinburgh airport, where flights were canceled because of volcanic ash from Iceland. The situation is bad, but experts say it could be much worse.

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
An airport vehicle on an empty runway in Edinburgh.

An empty runway at Edinburgh airport, where flights were canceled because of volcanic ash from Iceland. The situation is bad, but experts say it could be much worse.

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

As the eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano wreaks havoc on air transportation in Europe, it's worth remembering that the North Atlantic island has produced far deadlier blasts in the past — and that it's likely to do so again.

Volcanologist Stephen Self hopes the disruption caused by the volcanic ash cloud over Europe will prompt officials to plan and prepare for events that could be far worse.

Self, a professor at Britain's Open University, has studied a previous Icelandic eruption that caused extreme climate variations, widespread famine and political upheaval in Europe. It was the Laki eruption of 1783.

"The 1783 eruption was considerably larger than the one ongoing at the moment," Self says. "It lasted eight months, and it produced a similar amount of ash to the Mount St. Helens eruption in 1980."

Unlike the current eruption, Self says, the blast at Laki released a lot of sulfur gas, which combined with moisture in the air to form droplets of sulfuric acid, "a dry fog, an enormous aerosol mist event."

The poisonous gases sickened people, livestock and crops in Iceland, triggering a famine and eventually killing about 10,000 people — more than a quarter of the country's population.

A Blood-Red Sun

Within weeks, the haze from the volcano had drifted over Britain and southern Norway, then south through Europe to Paris and Rome. Accounts from England at the time describe farm workers collapsing in the fields. Cattle developed burns, sores and respiratory ailments. Crops withered.

The sun, as seen through the ash cloud, was blood red, a phenomenon that was recorded by painters of the time.

The haze caused "serious climate events for a year or two afterwards," Self says. "There were two very cold winters in Europe." The weather contributed to crop damage and famine that eventually left more than 20,000 dead in Britain alone, and thousands more died on the continent.

The "dry fog" from the volcano spread over much of the Northern Hemisphere, cooling the ground. In the United States, Benjamin Franklin recorded that the winter of 1784 was the coldest in memory.

Contemporary records show that the Chesapeake Bay remained frozen over for a long period, people skated on the harbor ice in Charleston, S.C., and the Mississippi River froze over at New Orleans.

Some historians believe that the years of extreme weather and crop failure in Europe increased the misery of farm workers in France, helping to stoke the rage that led to the French Revolution in 1789.

Could an eruption like Laki happen again? Self says it not only could — but will — although such events are very difficult to predict. "There haven't been enough of them to stack them up and say they happen every X number of years."

A 'Laki' In Today's Europe?

Even though the population of Europe is considerably greater than it was in 1783, it's not clear that a Laki-style eruption would produce a correspondingly greater number of deaths.

"Most deaths associated with 1783 were from starvation," Self says. "Allowing for the fact that the world food supply network is more sophisticated nowadays, that might not happen. ... We have very little knowledge about the respiratory effects."

Volcanologists are concerned, however, about other possible threats, Self says, "such as basic communications by satellite."

Would a very thick cloud of volcanic ash and gas interfere with satellite transmissions?

"There are quite a few unknowns about this," Self adds.

It's also unclear how a sulfuric-acid cloud might affect airplanes, simply because there haven't been many eruptions of the Laki type in the aviation era. Self says there have been a couple of events where highflying military jets went through aerosol clouds, including one associated with El Chichon eruption in Mexico in 1982, but the militaries involved haven't been sharing.

It's not just volcanoes in Iceland that are a threat, Self says.

"Alaska is a zone with many active volcanoes," he says. "There is a big U.S. and Russian effort to monitor hazards to aircraft from volcanoes in the area."

There are also major concentrations of volcanoes in Indonesia and Japan.

Self says officials in Europe and other parts of the world should see the current volcanic disruptions as practice — for what could be a greater catastrophe in the future.

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