Monday, January 22, 2007

Do Not Ask for Whom the Bell Tolls

When a killer cloud hit Britain
By Dan Walker
BBC Two's Timewatch

A little over 200 years ago, the eruption of a volcano in Iceland sent a huge toxic cloud across Western Europe. [The eruption of Laki was one of the biggest in recorded history].

"Such multitudes are indisposed by fevers in this country that farmers have difficulty gathering their harvest, the labourers having been almost every day carried out of the field incapable of work and many die." So wrote Bedfordshire poet William Cooper in the summer of 1783.
Across the country, newspapers reported the presence of a thick smog, and a dull sun, "coloured like it has been soaked in blood".
The cloud first reached Britain on the 22 June 1783. In his Naturalist's Journal, Gilbert White reported: "The peculiar haze or smoky fog that prevailed in this island and even beyond its limits was a most extraordinary appearance, unlike anything known within the memory of man."

The killer cloud lasted weeks, if not months, and engulfed much of Western Europe - as thousands of kilometres away in Iceland, the volcano Laki continued to erupt.
Millions of tonnes of toxic gas were carried by the prevailing winds across Scandinavia and eventually to Britain.
The cloud contained sulphur dioxide and sulphuric acid which attacked the lungs of its victims, choking and killing men and women, rich and poor alike. [...]

Dr John Grattan of Aberystwyth University, Wales, has spent a decade scrutinising hundreds of local parish records looking for evidence of Laki's deadly effect.
"In Maulden (in Bedfordshire) the normal number of people who might be expected to have died in the summer would be about four or five - and in the summer of 1783 seventeen people die here.
"In nearby Cranfield, 23 people die in the summer and usually they'd see about six. And in Ampthill, it's 11 and usually it's about five. So parish by parish, these numbers add up considerably."

Dr Grattan's research revealed a similar pattern across the county, and across much of eastern and central England.
From the fives and tens in each parish, Laki's death toll increases into the hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands.
In total, he estimates Laki's killer cloud took the lives of 23,000 British men and women, making it the greatest natural disaster in modern British history. France and other countries were similarly hit.

And it could happen again. Iceland has 18 volcanoes that have been active in recent centuries, the greatest concentration anywhere on the planet.
"There will be another one," says leading vulcanologist Professor Stephen Self, of the Open University, who has studied the Laki eruption.
"It's difficult to predict what size it will be, but there will be future events like this from Iceland.
"Ash clouds, gas clouds, sulphuric acid clouds from Iceland could sweep across Britain again."


Blogger Harry Eagar said...

It almost wiped out the Icelanders. I don't recall offhand the number, but the acid rain killed the crops and everybody starved.

But this is the first I have seen about deaths far from Iceland.

The eruption was unusual not only for volume but because it was not explosive. Laki just pumped out toxic fumes for months or years, but they did not rise high.

We have the same thing, smaller scale, in Hawaii. Kilauea has been erupting, mostly non-explosively, since 1983. The gases mostly blow off west and southwest, raising respiratory disease on the kona (or west) coast of the Big Island.

When the trades die down, the vog (volcanic smog) blows to Maui, aggravating my wife's asthma and, if it lasts long enough (couple weeks), making my eyes burn.

It's dilute hydrochloric acid mostly, caused by dissociation of seawater when hot lava enters the ocean.

When I say small, it's relative. Kilauea pumps something like 225K tons of lava/day. Laki's numbers were an order of magnitude larger.

January 22, 2007 1:37 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

Oh well, it might spare us some cricket humiliation.

"England saved from defeat by Aussies as sulphuric rain stops play."

January 24, 2007 9:12 AM  

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