When the Sun Turned Red
FOR several months during the summer of 1783, a strange, dry fog settled over large parts of the Northern Hemisphere. The sun turned bloodred, vegetation withered, and a countless number of people died. In fact, estimates indicate that the fog took the lives of tens of thousands in France and England alone. Many others fell sick—so many, apparently, that farmers struggled to find workers to gather in the crops that were unaffected.
The fog has been called “one of the most remarkable meteorological and geophysical phenomena of the last millennium.” At the time, however, only the people of Iceland knew the cause—a local volcanic eruption of a kind that experts say occurs once every few centuries. Understandably, Iceland was worst hit, losing an estimated 20 percent of the population.
The Laki Fissure Eruption
On June 8, 1783, residents of the Síða area of southern Iceland saw the first ominous signs of what has come to be known as the Laki fissure eruption. Because the event was documented by observers in a number of lands, researchers have been able to piece together a map showing the path of the volcanic cloud day by day. One of the eyewitnesses in Iceland, Jón Steingrímsson, recorded seeing “a black haze” extend out from the north. Darkness spread over him, and the ground became coated with fine ash. Then earthquakes and tremors began. He noted that a week later, “a terrible stream of fire poured forth from the Skaftá [River] canyon,” engulfing all that lay in its path. Steingrímsson documented the event for eight months.
In what is technically called a continental flood basalt eruption, a 16-mile-long [25 km] fissure in the earth’s crust ejected three and a half cubic miles [15 cu km] of lava, more than any volcanic eruption on record! Flaming fountains of molten rock shot thousands of feet into the air, and lava flowed some 50 miles [80 km] from the fissure, covering 225 square miles [580 sq km] and filling the channel of the Skaftá River.
Over the following year, ash and toxic chemicals that had settled on the Icelandic grass killed more than 50 percent of the cattle and about 80 percent of the horses and sheep. Famine became widespread. The Laki fissure also belched an estimated 122 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, where it reacted with water vapor to produce about 200 million tons of acidic aerosol.a
That summer, winds carried the noxious atmosphere great distances. In Britain and France, people described a “peculiar haze or smoky fog” that was unlike any other in living memory. Foul-smelling and sulfurous, it caused respiratory ailments, dysentery, headaches, sore eyes, sore throats, and other problems. The thick cloud of sulfur dioxide along with sulfuric acid proved deadly to young and old.
A report from Germany stated that in one night the toxic plume killed the leaves on the trees lining the banks of the Ems River. In England, vegetables shriveled and leaves died, as if scorched. Similar reports came from France, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Romania, Scandinavia, and Slovakia. Indeed, the chemical fog was observed as far away as Portugal, Tunisia, Syria, Russia, western China, and Newfoundland.
The indications are that temperatures were also affected as the heavily contaminated atmosphere blocked the sun’s rays. In 1784 continental Europe was about four degrees Fahrenheit [2 degrees C.] cooler than the average temperature there during the second half of the 18th century. Iceland was almost nine degrees [5 degrees C.] cooler. In North America, the winter of 1783/1784 was so cold that ice floes were reported to have “floated down the Mississippi . . . and out into the Gulf of Mexico.”
Some scholars believe that the near extinction of the Kauwerak people, an Inuit group in northwest Alaska, may have been linked to famine caused by the Laki eruption. Tree-ring data indicate that the summer of 1783 was Alaska’s coldest in over 400 years. Indeed, the Kauwerak have an oral tradition about a year when the warm season ended in June, followed by extreme cold and starvation.
Laki and the Modern World
The natural disaster of 1783 is all but forgotten, partly because it happened a long time ago but also because most who experienced it were unaware of the cause. In Iceland, however, the Laki eruption is remembered as the greatest natural calamity in the country’s history.
Some interpreted the disaster as divine chastisement. The Bible, however, does not support that view. (James 1:13) God does not act indiscriminately against good and bad, for “all his ways are justice.” (Deuteronomy 32:4) Justice will be demonstrated in an outstanding way in the future when God intervenes in human affairs. His purpose, the Bible states, will be to eradicate all causes of death and suffering, which include natural disasters.—Isaiah 25:8; Revelation 21:3, 4.
a Sulfur dioxide is also a troublesome air pollutant today, causing acid rain. The gas is a product of the combustion of fossil fuels, such as coal, gas, and petroleum.
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Aerial photo of the Laki fissure landscape
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An example of an incandescent lava fountain
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Satellite view of Iceland
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Lava fountain: © Tom Pfeiffer; aerial photo: U.S. Geological Survey; satellite photo: Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC