Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Future Iceland Eruptions Could Be Deadly for Europe

What if one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recent history happened today? A new study suggests that a blast akin to one that devastated Iceland in the 1780s would waft noxious gases southwestward and kill tens of thousands of people in Europe. And in a modern world that is intimately connected by air traffic and international trade, economic activity across much of Europe, including the production and import of food, could plummet.

From June of 1783 until February of 1784, the Laki volcano in south-central Iceland erupted. Although the event didn’t produce large amounts of volcanic ash, it did spew an estimated 122 million metric tons of sulfur dioxide gas into the sky — a volume slightly higher than human industrial activity today produces in the course of a year, says Anja Schmidt, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom.

Historical records suggest that in the 2 years after the Laki eruption, approximately 10,000 Icelanders died — about one-fifth of the population — along with nearly three-quarters of the island’s livestock. Parish records in England reveal that in the summer of 1783, when the event began, death rates were between 10 percent and 20 percent above normal. The Netherlands, Sweden, and Italy reported episodes of decreased visibility, respiratory difficulties, and increased mortality associated with the eruption. According to one study, an estimated 23,000 people died from exposure to the volcanic aerosols in Britain alone. But elsewhere in Europe, it’s difficult to separate deaths triggered by the air pollution from those caused by starvation or disease, which were prominent causes of death at the time. more