Iceland At The End Of The World

This is the first entry in a new (and very long) series I’ve decided to call Around The World In 80 Posts. In it, I’ll be looking at various landmarks and curious places around the world, from ancient mysteries to modern wonders.

Posts, not days. I have my limits.

For our first stop, we return to that fascinating geological wonder, Iceland. More specifically, Snaefellsjokull, the 700,000 year old extinct stratovolcano just northwest of Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik.

There’s nothing particularly strange about Snæfells. It’s the volcano through which Professor Lindenbrock, his nephew, and Hans descended into the abyss in A Journey To The Center Of The Earth. Otherwise, it’s a perfectly ordinary chunk of rock.

But, then again, Iceland is the perfect place to just stop. To take a long, deep breath, enjoy the scenery, and ponder the mass extinction of all life on our planet.

You heard me.

The (Almost) End of the World

In southern Iceland, there are fissures surrounding the Laki mountain called Lakagígar. They’re part of a volcanic system that includes the Grímsvötn and Thordarhyrna volcanoes and, needless to say, it’s a pretty volatile situation over there.

Take, for example, the events of June 8, 1783, when the fissures were formed.

It was one of the most profound and dangerous volcanic eruptions in modern history. Sure, the initial explosions died down in only a few days, but sulphuric aerosols continued to spew out over the course of eight months, and the lava flow produced by the eruptions was the third largest on earth since the last ice age.

The eruptions didn’t end until February 7, 1784 (Grímsvötn, as well, erupted continuously until 1785), and ultimately killed over six million people worldwide. Nearly 25% of Iceland’s population perished as a result of fluorine poisoning and famine caused by the death of livestock.

A tower of magma
Image: Flickr/Börkur Sigurbjörnsson via CC by 2.0

In Britain, the following summer was known as the “sand summer,” as ash rained from the sky and painted the earth. And all across Europe, a thick haze of sulphur dioxide permeated the atmosphere.

It also may have contributed to the worst famine in Japan’s history.

Even here in the United States, we experienced the coldest and longest winter on record. Just imagine: Ice in the Gulf of Mexico, and snowstorms throughout the South!

All told, the Laki eruption is ranked as one of the most profound volcanic eruptions in Earth’s history, alongside the Toba Catastrophe, and one of the deadliest eruptions ever recorded.

In the past 1,000 years, it’s second only to the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 and remains, easily, the worst catastrophe to ever strike Iceland.

But the power of volcanoes can affect us at any moment, even today. We need only look back to 2010, when another of Iceland’s volcanoes, Eyjafjallajokull, erupted, disrupting travel and spewing hot ash into the atmosphere that lingered for weeks.

Of course, it wasn’t nearly as devastating as the eruption at Lakagígar, but it’s a reminder of how these things can just happen.

Where were we? Oh, yeah. Snæfells. You know, that’s Icelandic for the “snow-fells glacier.” It’s named such because there’s literally a glacier resting on its summit. Pretty cool stuff.

The last time it exploded was around 200 AD. So yeah: It’s dead, Jim. For now.

But how much time is left before the next catastrophic eruption? Where will it be? Check out my post on the Toba Catastrophe Theory to read more about the apocalyptic potential of Earth’s deadliest volcanoes.


Rob Schwarz

Writer, blogger, and part-time peddler of mysterious tales. Editor-in-chief of Stranger Dimensions. Might be a robot.

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