Can a single explosion change the course of history? An eruption at the end of the 18th century led to years of climate change while igniting famine, disease, even perhaps revolution. Laki is one of Iceland’s most fearsome volcanoes.
Laki is Iceland’s largest volcano. Its eruption in 1783 is one of history’s great, untold natural disasters. Spewing out sun-blocking ash and then a poisonous fog for eight long months, the effects of the eruption lingered across the world for years. It caused the deaths of people as far away as the Nile and created catastrophic conditions throughout Europe.
Island on Fire is the story not only of a single eruption but the people whose lives it changed, the dawn of modern volcanology, as well as the history—and potential—of other super-volcanoes like Laki around the world. And perhaps most pertinently, in the wake of the eruption of another Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, which closed European air space in 2010, acclaimed science writers Witze and Kanipe look at what might transpire should Laki erupt again in our lifetime.
In March 2010, Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallaj kull erupted, spewing lava "from a fissure on the mountain's side." By volcanic standards, say coauthors Witze and Kanipe (Chasing Hubble's Shadows), "it looked fairly unthreatening," though ash from the eruption soon drifted south and east across Europe, closing airspace, grounding flights across the continent, and "cost businesses as much as five billion euros." In their revealing new volume, the two science writers use this modern event to examine another Icelandic volcano, Laki, which erupted in June 1783. Witze and Kanipe look at the magnitude of that eruption and its tremendous consequences, examining journals kept by locals and piecing together substantial time lines to detail events as a thick cloud of ash "shut out the sun and drove everyone indoors" before a "thick haze rolled across the countryside, accompanied by a devilish stink." As the contemporary accounts relate, "Pastoral Iceland, once full of lush grassy meadows, became a grey and poisonous place." Chapters on geology and the short- and long-term effects of volcanic eruptions add depth to Witze and Kanipe's discussion, rounding out a work that serves as a valuable reminder of just how much we remain at Mother Nature's mercy.