Lakagigar - the Laki craters
June 8, 1783
Dead: About 9,000-10,000
Damage: Historians noted haze from the eruption as far away as Syria, one-quarter of human population died in Iceland. [plus nearly a third of all livestock].
I just received my latest National Geographic in the mail, always a happy event (my father has been renewing my subscription for the past twelve years or so...thanks, Pabbi!).
While reading the "World by Numbers" page by volcanologist Chris Newhall, I thought to myself how funny it is that Icelanders seem to think they have the corner on the volcano market; one glance at an international mag like NG serves to remind that the Earth's crust is splitting and bubbling and spewing all over the place, and not just in our little corner of the world. But "The Land of Fire and Ice" is our unofficial national slogan, and this ironic glacier-meets-volcano attitude seems to have informed the country's consciousness in the past few decades, for better or for worse. We seem to ignore the fact that other snowy mountains in other lands have spewed lava before, and most probably will again, i.e. that it's not just an Icelandic phenomena.
So while I was musing over Icelander's tendency toward superlatives and toward seeing the whole world through very local eyes, I flipped the pages of the mag to the "Who Knew?" page where, to my surprise, I found the following tidbit:
Fire and Ice
It wasn't until 1784 that a scientist suggested that volcanic eruptions could affect global climate. It was a year after the Laki fissure zone in Iceland erupted fort eight months - the greatest outpouring of lava in historic time...That scientist was none other than Benjamin Franklin.
So there I had it: "greatest." Another superlative to add to the list of bests, mosts, cleanests, biggests, smallests, fewests, firsts, etc that pepper Icelanders' proud commentary on their country, plus the national Tag Line in bold print, and a bit of Ben Franklin, to boot. It reminded me that very often we can justify our cheeky self-regard and almost overwhelming hubris.
What we do have every right to be proud of is the fact that we somehow survived this terrible, drawn-out eruption. Wikipedia offers the following quote:
"This said week, and the two prior to it, more poison fell from the sky than words can describe: ash, volcanic hairs, rain full of sulfur and salt peter, all of it mixed with sand. The snouts, nostrils, and feet of livestock grazing or walking on the grass turned bright yellow and raw. All water went tepid and light blue in color and gravel slides turned gray. All the earth's plants burned, withered and turned gray, one after the another, as the fire increased and neared the settlements."
(Rev. Jón Steingrímsson, Fires of the Earth, The Laki Eruption (1783-1784)
Somehow, some of us survived those few hundred years ago and have found a way to keep our rightfully-proud culture alive.
By the way, if you take the highlands bus while here during the summer, seeing the Lakagígur and Eldgjá region are a must!
photo courtesy of Yann Arthus-Bertrand
Posted by Iceland Eyes on February 11, 2005