Mental Floss

Climate Change Back in the 18th Century? 6 Devastating Effects of Laki

David K. Israel

Ask anyone what Iceland is known for and they're likely to rattle off things like the sagas, Steinn Steinarr, whale hunts, geothermal power, black pudding, and, of course, Björk. But toward the end of the 18th century, Iceland was known for something terrible, something that changed temperatures around the world, something called Laki.

Laki is a volcano that erupted in a big way during the summer of 1783, spewing out 3.4 cubic miles of killer basalt lava, throwing it more than 4,500 feet in the air (by comparison, Mount St. Helens, released 0.3 cubic miles worth). The effects of the poisonous fluorine/sulfur-dioxide compounds were felt the globe over, creating a serious change in temperature that led to famine, death, and destruction far off the shores of the little island.

Here are 6 documented instances, though certainly there were many more:

1. Fifty percent of Iceland's livestock population (including 75% of the sheep) was wiped out by the eruption itself, or the poisonous cloud lingering in the atmosphere. A Lutheran priest named Jon Steingrimsson living at the time in southern Iceland wrote, "The horses lost all their flesh"¦the skin began to rot off along the spines. The sheep were affected even more wretchedly. There was hardly a part on them free of swellings, especially their jaws, so large that they protruded through the skin...Both bones and gristle were as soft as if they had been chewed."

2. No livestock meant no food. One quarter of Iceland's population was lost due to starvation.

3. The dark cloud moved into Europe as the summer wore on, killing thousands. Some estimate that about 23,000 Brits died from the sulfur dioxide during August and September alone. After an abnormally warm summer (the hottest on record until 1995) temperatures began to plummet the following winter. As the cloud dissipated, gasses trapped high in the atmosphere reflected the sun back out into space. Europe was, on average, 2ºC cooler that winter. Back in Iceland, it was about 5ºC cooler.

4. It was also about 5ºC cooler in parts of the U.S. Ice floated down the Mississippi through New Orleans and out into the Gulf. (Yes, that's right: ice in the Gulf of Mexico!) Laki was also responsible for the largest accumulation of snow New Jersey has ever seen, and the Chesapeake Bay remained frozen that winter far longer than ever before or after.

5. In Japan, the abnormally cold winter led to famines over the next several years as the rice harvests were lost. As many as 1 million people died as a result.

6. In Africa, Laki wreaked havoc on the monsoons and the Nile didn't rise as normal. No water meant no harvests, which led to famines and plague. By 1785, a sixth of Egypt's population had been killed off, or left the country.