Iceland is an island of volcanoes spreading right across its landscape and even extending beneath the sea. Many of the volcanoes of Iceland have erupted and been active during its history. In Iceland’s most recent history the massive eruption of the Laki volcano in 1783 caused one of the greatest disasters in living history. Laki or Lakagígar—Craters of Laki—is a volcanic fissure situated in the south of Iceland, not far from the canyon of Eldgjá and the small town Kirkjubæjarklaustur, in Skaftafell National Park. Laki is part of a volcanic system, centering on the Grímsvötn volcano and including the Eldgjá canyon and Katla volcano, and lies between the glaciers of Mýrdalsjökull and Vatnajökull, in an area of fissures which run in a south-west to north-east direction.

In AD 934, the Laki system produced a very large volcanic eruption, as a flood basalt in the Eldgjá eruption, which released 19.6 cubic kilometres (4.7 cu mi) of lava. In 1783-1784, the system erupted again, from the Laki fissure and the adjoining Grímsvötn volcano, pouring out an estimated 14 km3 (3.4 cu mi) of basalt lava and clouds of poisonous hydrofluoric acid/sulfur-dioxide compounds that killed over 50% of Iceland’s livestock population, leading to famine which killed approximately 25% of the population (the data showed consecuential fatal efects in the whole country; cattle died because of poisoning, and the ensuing famine resulted in the death of near of 25% of the population in the following years). This Laki volcano eruption occurred in the June of 1783 spread a massive haze that covered most of Europe and parts of North America.

This cloud was even reported to have extended into Asia and North Africa. On the June 8, 1783 a fissure with 130 craters opened explosively at first because of the groundwater interacting with the rising basalt magma. Over time, the eruptions became less explosive, with the style changing from Plinian to Strombolian, and later to Hawaiian with high rates of lava effusion.

The eruption, also known as the Skaftar Fires, produced about 15 km³ of basalt lava, and the total volume of tephra emitted was 0.91 km3. Lava fountains were estimated to have reached 800-1400 m in height. In Scotland, the summer of 1783 was known as the sand-summer, due to ash fallout in Scotland. The gases were carried by the convective eruption column to altitudes of about 15 km. The aerosols built up caused a cooling effect in the Northern Hemisphere, possibly by as much as 1 degree Celsius.

In its wake, the Laki Volcano eruption, although beginning in Iceland created widespread famine across Europe when the weather pattern changed so dramatically that it affected vital crops in the summer months and saw the loss of livestock. The meteorological impact of the Laki Volcano eruption in Iceland brought unprecedented weather patterns with violent thunderstorms and hailstorms, killing cattle in the fields and destroying crops. 

In reference to the Laki volcano eruption in Iceland, Benjamin Franklin during a lecture in 1784 made the following comments ‘….when the effect of the sun’s rays to heat the earth in these northern regions should have been greater, there existed a constant fog over all Europe, and a great part of North America…’. The Laki volcano eruption in Iceland therefore, effectively eradicated the summer of that year. The sun was obscured by the vast cloud caused by the Laki eruption and, what should have been a warm summer in the northern hemisphere, took on winter proportions, not just in Iceland, but all over Europe. It was reported that the sun either remained as a pale ghost or took on a strange, blood red colour in the volcanic haze.

The repercussions of the Laki Volcano eruption in Iceland resonated throughout Europe for the next few years. The summer of 1783, having been turned to winter was followed by an extreme, harsh winter in 1784, even in North America where it was reported as one of the coldest on record.

The Laki Volcano eruption in Iceland can also be said to have contributed significantly to the French Revolution. After several years of extreme weather in Europe caused by the Laki eruption, the ensuing destruction of crops and livestock brought famine and poverty that built up in France, triggering the Revolution which began in 1789.

In spite of this major historical event in Iceland that changed the path of history, the Laki Volcano eruption in 1783 was not comparable to previous reported eruptions in Iceland, such as the Edlgja eruption of 934 AD which was even greater.
There were others throughout Iceland’s 500 years of recorded history and Iceland itself was born out of volcanic activity, Laki being only one of many volcanoes on the Island.


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