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Saturday, April 17, 2010

The influence of volcanoes in the Georgian/Regency period

In 1990 we took a trip to Iceland, driving ourselves around the entire country in a Land Rover and camping out in some of the most remote and extraordinary places I have ever seen. As a trip it was superb. One of the places we went to was the Krafla volcano, where we walked around the explosion crater of Viti (translated as "hell"). The rock beneath our feet was warm, steam was rising from the vents and the smell of rotten eggs was strong. Every indication was that this was a volcano that was sleeping but not very deeply. I remember it as one of the occasions in my travels when I felt least safe (and that's up against some stiff competition!) but it was utterly awe-inspiring.

The recent problems caused by the Icelandic Eyjafjallajoekull volcano reminded me of this trip and also made me wonder about the influence other volcanoes had had on societies in the past so I did a quick bit of research and here are the results, courtesy of the BBC, which has provided some fascinating information on historic eruptions. From the downfall of political systems to inspiration for art and literature and the invention of the bicycle, volcanoes have a lot to answer for!

The Laki volcanic fissure in southern Iceland (featured above) erupted over an eight-month period from 8 June 1783 to February 1784, spewing lava and poisonous gases that devastated the island's agriculture, killing much of the livestock. It is estimated that perhaps a quarter of Iceland's population died through the ensuing famine. Then, as now, there were more wide-ranging impacts. In Norway, the Netherlands, the British Isles, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, in North America and even Egypt, the Laki eruption had its consequences, as the haze of dust and sulphur particles thrown up by the volcano was carried over much of the northern hemisphere.

Ships moored up in many ports, effectively fogbound. Crops were affected as the fall-out from the continuing eruption coincided with an abnormally hot summer. A clergyman, the Rev Sir John Cullum, wrote to the Royal Society that barley crops "became brown and withered … as did the leaves of the oats; the rye had the appearance of being mildewed". The British naturalist Gilbert White described that summer in his classic Natural History of Selborne as "an amazing and portentous one … the peculiar haze, or smokey fog, that prevailed for many weeks in this island, and in every part of Europe, and even beyond its limits, was a most extraordinary appearance, unlike anything known within the memory of man. "The sun, at noon, looked as blank as a clouded moon, and shed a rust-coloured ferruginous light on the ground, and floors of rooms; but was particularly lurid and blood-coloured at rising and setting. At the same time the heat was so intense that butchers' meat could hardly be eaten on the day after it was killed; and the flies swarmed so in the lanes and hedges that they rendered the horses half frantic … the country people began to look with a superstitious awe, at the red, louring aspect of the sun."

Across the Atlantic, Benjamin Franklin wrote of "a constant fog over all Europe, and a great part of North America".The disruption to weather patterns meant the ensuing winter was unusually harsh, with consequent spring flooding claiming more lives. In America the Mississippi reportedly froze at New Orleans. The eruption is now thought to have disrupted the Asian monsoon cycle, prompting famine in Egypt. Environmental historians have also pointed to the disruption caused to the economies of northern Europe, where food poverty was a major factor in the build-up to the French revolution of 1789.

The eruption of Tambora in Indonesia in April 1815 is thought to have ejected 50 cubic km or more of material and pumped vast amounts of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere. The cloud from Tambora caused an unusual chill, lowering global temperatures by an estimated 0.4-0.7C. In parts of Europe and in North America, 1816 became known as "the year without a summer".

Frosts killed off crops in New England and Canada and Europe was also hit badly. The volcanic cloud from Tambora is thought to have been responsible for the unusual, yellow-tinged sunsets painted by JMW Turner. The unseasonable weather also trapped Mary Shelley and her husband Percy in Lord Byron's house on Lake Geneva. To divert his guests, Lord Byron suggested a writing competition, the most notable result of which was Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. In Europe, the soaring price of oats - which were fed to horses - may have prompted German inventor Karl Drais to invent a horseless form of transport: the velocipede, which was a direct ancestor of the bicycle.


Louise Allen said...

Fascinating research, Nicola! I love the idea of Frankenstein being the product of a volcanic eruption.

Kate Hardy said...

How interesting! I knew about 1816 being the "year without a summer" but not the rest of it. Great descriptions.

Nicola Cornick said...

Thanks, both! Yes, it really makes you think of all the extraordinary knock on consequences, especially in a time when we didn't have the technology to compensate to some degree with improved food supply etc.

Jan Jones said...

Extraordinary! How long before they knew in the UK that the weather conditions were the by-product of the eruption?

Beth Elliott said...

Really interesting facts. I knew about the poor harvests in France being a major cause of the Revolution. Love the Frankenstein episode, and the velocipede, strange but important consequences of volcanic activity. And now, what will someone invent to help us travel without planes....?

NinaP said...

Fascinating as always, Nicola. I wonder how the religious community viewed such “blights.”

Nicola Cornick said...

I think they recognised the effect of the Laki eruption reasonably quickly, Jan, because the fogs and strange light etc. made it more obvious that there was a direct link. Not sure about the Tambora one because that was further away geographically. Nina, I imagine that the church was thundering about divine retribution! I shall see if I can find any references.