“Around midmorn on whitsun, June 8th of 1783, in clear and calm weather, a black haze of sand appeard to the north of the mountains nearest the farms of the Siða area. The cloud was so extensive that in a short time it had spread over the entire Siða area (…), and so thick that it caused darkness indoors and coated the earth so that tracks could be seen.”*
These are the words Rev. Jón Steingrímsson, the pastor who served the church at Kirkjubærjarklaustur at the time, wrote in his diary and what was supposed to be the beginning of one of the biggest natural disasters of the last millennium: The Laki eruption. The shots in this post show the place where it all happened.
The two shots above show the craters along the 27 km eruption fissure. The eruption lasted 8 months and produced nearly 15 km3 of basaltic lava and covered 580 km2.* The shot below shows just a little piece of the massive lava field.
“This said week, and the two prior to it, more poison fell from the sky than words can describe: ash, volcanic hairs, rain full of sulphur and salpetre, all of it mixed with sand.” wrote Steingrímsson end of June 1783. The eruption column reached up to 13 km in height so that the outpouring gases could spread across the northern hemisphere from Europe via Russia, China and Japan to Alaska. The so called “Laki haze” – a dry fog – led to crop failure, killed horses and cattle and contributed to a very cold winter in 1783/1784, followed by severe flood damage thereafter. 20% of the Icelandic population died. Thousands died just in northern Europe. The following years were marked with extreme weather conditions leading to poverty and famine.** While historically not proven, it is speculated that the Laki eruption finally also contributed to French revolution in 1789.
Standing on the top of mountain Laki (818 m) only 236 years later and looking down on the endless array of craters from the horizon to the west to the horizon to the east one can only imagine how massive the natural forces raged.
The lava stream took 5 days to get to the coast. With a four wheel drive SUV with good clearance one can do the 40 km on road F206 in good one and a half hours. A couple of times one has to cross rivers and finally hike up about 200 m in height to reach the peak of mountain Laki that offers the spectacular views shown in this post.
Back in Kirkjubærjarklaustur I can recommend to buy the book “Fires of the Earth” by Jón Steingrímsson* in the tourist office. It’s a unique eye-witness record of this natural disaster written by a man who became an Islandic legend as during his ceremony the lava stream threatening his church halted.
Laki is one of the most impressive places I have seen in Iceland so far. The dramatic scenery was supported by the the rain clouds to the west and the fog to the east still leaving holes for the sun contributing to strong contrasts and making the green moss shine. A place that teaches humbleness!
*Rev. Jón Steingrímsson: Fires of the Earth, The Laki Eruption 1783-1784, Nordic Volcanological Institute and the University of Iceland Press, Reykjavik, Iceland 1998.
**Thordarson Th. and Self St.: Atmospheric and environmental effects of the 1783–1784 Laki eruption: A review and reassessment. Journal of Geophysical Research 2003.