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"The flood of fire flowed with the speed of a great river swollen with meltwater on a spring day"
March 11, 2009 4:38 PM   Subscribe

On June 8, 1783, the volcano Laki in south Iceland tore open a 16-mile fissure that erupted over nine cubic miles of lava. Not only would this eruption kill over 50% of Iceland's livestock population, leading to famine which killed approximately 25% of the population; its effects were felt the world over, with flourine, sulfur dioxide, ash, sand and drastically cooled tempertaures from the blotted-out sun reaching as far afield as North America and Africa. The eruption lasted for nearly eight months. And from the day the eruption began, a humble priest named Jón Steingrímsson would make his mark in history.

Steingrímsson - known now as the "Fire Priest" - not only witnessed the Laki eruption, he stayed with his parishioners, distributing food and money even as thick ash clouds created perpetual darkness and a winter that lasted nearly a year. Despite losing his wife and many of those close to him, he recorded the events of the Laki eruption in the eloquently written book Fires of the Earth. But what Steingrímsson is best known for is his "fire mass" (web page in Icelandic) - a sermon he delivered after all the townspeople of Kirkjubæjarklaustur were assembled in the church, a giant wall of lava approaching. The sermon was brief, but was said to have been delivered with great passion. At its conclusion, the lava had changed course, sparing the townspeople. Here is Jón Steingrímsson's sermon, translated with the help of our own Kattullus:
Let us pray to God in correct piety, that He in His grace will not want destroy us in haste. Each and every one pray without fear. Each and every one be ready to die if it pleases Him. Not in ours, but Your name do we praise glory. Some make ungodly speech, bluster and act badly but even they will be humble and persevering. To one God is the honor! Call to God and suffer patiently what He lays on us. God does all things well and nothing unjustly. He knows better than men what is good for them. Give unto God the glory, and praise His highest name.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing (25 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite

 
> Laki - The Biggest Atmospheric Pollution Event in History

My dad's name isn't Laki.
posted by The Card Cheat at 4:59 PM on March 11, 2009


Cool post! I've not yet read any of the links but already I'm super interested. Is there anywhere online you can read Fires of the Earth online (or excerpts even) for free?
posted by Effigy2000 at 5:00 PM on March 11, 2009


This is a metaphor for the Icelandic economy, isn't it?
posted by dersins at 5:00 PM on March 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


If you think our air is polluted today, you don't know much about the history of smog. And I'm sure all that Flourine improved international dental health (unless those supposed benefits are all lies).
/snark

Yes, interesting post, and kudos to Kattullus for the translation. Effigy2000 - it's not in google books (yet), and I don't know of any online book service for (vaguely) current texts.
posted by filthy light thief at 5:09 PM on March 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is a metaphor for the Icelandic economy, isn't it?

Well, the climate change and subsequent terrible harvests and famine that France experienced as a result of Laki is said to have contributed to the French Revolution. So if it is a metaphor for the Icelandic economy, let's hope it extends to reform for the better elsewhere in the world as well.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:10 PM on March 11, 2009


Damn... I should've gone over the translation again. But I was in a hurry, I had some kids to teach chess to.

Oh, one little anecdote. The livestock was killed by fluorine. When I was in primary school in Iceland classrooms would be visited by people who'd give us fluoride mouthwash. In Icelandic both fluorine and fluoride are usually just called flúor. Once, after learning about how flúor killed off a quarter of Icelanders, we got a visit by the flúor people. And yet we all just swished with the mouthwash. What obedient little sheep we were.
posted by Kattullus at 5:12 PM on March 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


Great post! This is fantastic.

Probably, there’s an eruption like this in Iceland, on this scale, every 500 years or so


Geologically speaking, that's all the freaking time! A terrible tragedy to be sure, but we're also lucky to have experienced this during the human habitation of Earth, such events are incredible insights into the workings of our planet.

There were some French priests who wrote “when the fog arrived, a third of the men of my parish were swept to their tombs”. People were really scared, there’s one letter which tells of the people of one parish being so afraid of this smog that they thought the end of the world was here, the gates of Hell had opened and the Devil was walking the Earth. They dragged the priest out of his house, made him put on his vestments and perform a service of exorcism on it.


No kidding. That's a bloody ill portent.
posted by baphomet at 5:14 PM on March 11, 2009


Also, since we're all looking at awesome volcano stuff, you may be interested to know that Sakurajima erupted yesterday.
posted by baphomet at 5:15 PM on March 11, 2009


Iceland must be stopped before it kills again.
posted by ...possums at 5:27 PM on March 11, 2009 [8 favorites]


That is fascinating; still, I was (and am) pretty sure the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia was worse, atmospheric pollution-wise. It was so bad that the next year was called "The Year Without a Summer" in much of the world.
posted by cerebus19 at 5:28 PM on March 11, 2009


More evidence that Global Warming is a farce, right? Is that what he's getting at by asking about the pollution again and again? See...one volcano did more damage than all of the pollution in the world! We don't need to fix it! Or something like that...
posted by Chuffy at 5:41 PM on March 11, 2009


"In North America, the winter of 1784 was the longest and one of the coldest on record. [...] the Mississippi River froze at New Orleans, "

Holy crap on a cracker.
posted by Mitheral at 5:46 PM on March 11, 2009


This is a metaphor for the Icelandic economy, isn't it?

Well, the climate change and subsequent terrible harvests and famine that France experienced as a result of Laki is said to have contributed to the French Revolution. So if it is a metaphor for the Icelandic economy, let's hope it extends to reform for the better elsewhere in the world as well.

No, seriously. Bear with me for a minute here-- The Icelandic banking system erupted last October, devastating a significant chunk of the country's economy. Its effects were felt the world over, including North America:
Low demand is compounded by the troubles faced by Canadian processors, who buy around 70 per cent of Maine's lobster harvest... Many Canadian processors are funded by Icelandic banks and had to shut down operations after the recent economic meltdown in that country.
And as for the positive effects you mention(i.e. the French Revolution), I think we can say that its fallout certainly had some impact, however indirect, on the events of November 4, 2008.

And if that's not reform for the better I don't know what is.
posted by dersins at 5:53 PM on March 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Flouride poisoning would seem to result from concentrations of the stuff. In smaller doses, it's probably not bad, but greater amounts aren't good for you.

As for the volcano, it seems that most of the world-wide damage was from the eight month emission of sulfuric aerosols. Regardless, the initial explosion was rated a 6 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index, which uses volume of products, eruption cloud height, and qualitative observations (using terms ranging from "gentle" to "mega-colossal") are used to determine the explosivity value. If nothing else, thank you Marisa for showing me that "mega-colossal" is a scientific term. I will use this knowledge in my next serious debate.
posted by filthy light thief at 5:55 PM on March 11, 2009


Thanks filthy light thief, I was wondering where this one was on the VEI.
posted by baphomet at 6:42 PM on March 11, 2009


posted by dersins This is a metaphor for the Icelandic economy, isn't it?

Yep. It's bjorked.
posted by mattdidthat at 7:13 PM on March 11, 2009 [4 favorites]


Wall Street on the Tundra.
posted by mecran01 at 9:56 PM on March 11, 2009


Wall Street on the Tundra

... which was the subject of an FPP that received much love.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 10:14 PM on March 11, 2009


I wrote an essay an Laki for uni last year and I think it's one of the most interesting volcanic events recorded. The volcanic system it is considered to be a part of (Grimsvotn) has had about 70 eruption events in the past 150 years or so.

I also came across a story within Inuit oral history known as "The Time Summer Did Not Come" in which a majority of the local Inuit population died, all due to an event thousands of kilometres away.

It also goes to show that lava flows are never a concern in volcanic events. Despite some incredibly fast flows recorded (up to 18 km in a day) and lava fountains reaching heights of 1400 metres not one of the 10,000 or so Icelandic deaths was due to lava.

The work by Thorvaldur Thordarson and Stephen Self was the best resource I had in writing about Laki. I highly recommend checking out their stuff if you're interested at all in Laki or Icelandic volcanism.
posted by Serial Killer Slumber Party at 10:35 PM on March 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


It's posts like this that have made mefi a go to destination for me for years. Thanks.
posted by IvoShandor at 5:19 AM on March 12, 2009


Their hands must be really clean with all that lava around.
posted by Drasher at 6:41 AM on March 12, 2009


Quite possibly my most favorite SNL skit of the year -- sorry for those of you who can't access Hulu, do a search for "SNL + Björk" --

Björk weighs in on the economy.

The reindeer uprising of 2012 -- IT'S COMING.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 7:25 AM on March 12, 2009


What obedient little sheep we were.

Obedient sheep with fangs, Kattullus?

Wasn't this the same century that the Black Death hit Iceland once or twice?
posted by QIbHom at 7:44 AM on March 12, 2009


Great stuff and I'm another who loves the fact that "mega colossal"--which sounds like it's straight out of a radio ad for the '09 monster-truck season--is a scientific term.

Laki, Laki, Laki!!!!!!!!!! It's (cue echo effect) MEGA COLOSSAL!!!!. It's at the county fairgrounds!!!! It's engulfing and devouring the whole county!!!!! It's everywhere!!!!!! Laki, Laki, Laki!!!!!!!!!!!! Don't miss it!!!!!!!!! You can't miss it!!!!!!!! Laki, Laki, Laki!!!!!!!!!!!
posted by ambient2 at 1:41 PM on March 12, 2009


Wow. I did a family history project in high school and, thanks to the great genealogical records of Icelanders, I was able to trace back my mother's family all the way to a priest who had supposedly turned away the lava flows. I wonder if this is the guy.

Of course, with the size and isolation of the Icelandic population, I bet most Icelanders and descendants can claim him as blood as well.
posted by Furie at 2:28 PM on March 12, 2009


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