Boats spray the lava flow at Heimaey harbour

Author interview - Alexandra Witze - 'Island on Fire'

In the 18th century a volcano in Iceland erupted, leading to disastrous environmental implications for the whole of Europe. Alexandra Witze's new book 'Island on Fire' explains what we can learn from history.

Most of us will remember the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull four years ago. For those living in Britain perhaps the most serious consequence of the seismic activity was the almost total disruption to air traffic due to colossal ash clouds circulating in the atmosphere. For Iceland, where the volcano is located, such was the intensity of Vulcan's wrath that it even managed to knock the country's impending bankruptcy off the front pages, with tales of an island on fire.

As natural disasters went this was significant enough, but it was nothing compared with the 1783 eruption of another Icelandic volcano, Laki, which caused the deaths of a quarter of the country's population. And it will, according to Alexandra Witze, be "a drop in the bucket" compared with what will happen if Laki goes up again.

Witze is one half of the husband-and-wife author duo responsible for a new book on Iceland's volcanic history. Called 'Island on Fire' it's a blend of popular science and historical research, with more than a touch of Doomsday prophecy about it. Witze, who is a correspondent on Nature magazine, says that the eruption of Laki in the late 18th century "changed the way we look at science" - a claim she backs up by saying that the key importance of the event was that this was the first time scientists were "able to figure out that activity on a remote island in the middle of the Atlantic could have an incredible effect on daily life across Europe".

Climate change, crop failure, pollution and disease were just a few of the ways in which Laki affected the continent. Witze even goes as far as to suggest the possibility that Laki played a part in the French Revolution: "The eruption created crop failure that in turn led to civil unrest. Clearly, there was other stuff going on that led to the revolution, but you can't deny that, however environmentally deterministic you want to be about such events, crop failure was one of the causes, and one of the things that caused that failure was this volcano in Iceland. History was changed by something that happened in an obscure country and the world was never the same again." One of the defining characteristics of Laki was that it spewed out what Witze describes as a "toxic fog containing sulphur and chlorine, acid rain and all sorts of horrible things".

Engineers and geophysicists are on the frontline in our battle to understand what happens when events such as Laki take place. "These are the people with their finger on the pulse of the planet. If you don't have scientists out in the field in their geodetic stations monitoring seismic activity then you simply don't know what's happening." She describes Futurevolc, a multi-partner project spearheaded by the University of Iceland and the Iceland Meteorological Office, the main purpose of which is to "instrument the heck out of Iceland. Engineers and technicians are leading this charge, so that if something like Laki is going to happen again, we will know about it before it does."

According to Witze the engineering community first really started to learn about volcanic activity containment during the 1973 eruption at Heimaey, one of Iceland's most economically important cod fishing ports. It was a sleepy January night when the ground "literally ripped open and started spewing fire fountains, burying houses in lava and ash". The population was evacuated, but the real problem was that lava flows coming down the mountains were threatening to block the port, a prospect that would inevitably lead to economic disaster for the outpost. At this point Icelandic physicist Thorbjörn Sigurgeirsson, who had studied under Nils Bohr in Copenhagen, enters the story. "He came up with this slightly crazy idea to pump cold sea water on to the hot running lava, the idea being to cool it sufficiently to slow it down and then stop it before it reached the harbour. It was an incredible engineering challenge, and it actually worked."

Witze, who has a degree in geology, first became interested in Laki when driving around Iceland with some field scientists after the Eyjafjallajökull event, who pointed out the Laki fissure "which killed most of the countryside and which I had never heard of. And then we went back in 2012 and we really got into it." The significance of historical events such as Heimaey, and to a lesser extent Eyjafjallajökull, is that they open a window on what may have happened at Laki more than two centuries ago.

"You have to remember that even today Laki is in an incredibly remote region of the world. The people who lived in the landscape were farmers and their existence depended on the weather being good, their sheep and cattle being healthy. These people were just going along in their lives when all of a sudden all hell broke loose. There's ash, there's lava, they're choking and dying. These people were used to what they called the earth fires. But this was on a scale unlike anything they had ever seen before."

One of the key observations to emerge from Island on Fire is that the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull was "absolutely a wake-up call to scientists and governments everywhere". Witze goes on to say that while the scientific community routinely clamours for "more money and more attention", this time it's not a case of them crying wolf. "There has been a lot of response, including the start-up of the Futurevolc project, which is now placing instrumentation on all volcanic areas that might lead to havoc and disruption of life in both Iceland and across Europe." Elsewhere, there is significant investment in monitoring and modelling the spread of ash clouds and pollution, with the UK putting volcanic eruptions on its National Risk Register (NRR).

"In fact, when volcanic activity was put on the register, they specifically cited the risk of a Laki-style eruption. A University of Leeds scientist has run models of what would happen if Laki went off tomorrow and the net result is that 140,000 people would die." This is the same casualty total as the upper estimates of the death toll following the 1945 nuclear bomb explosion over Hiroshima.

"You can't stop volcanoes," concludes Witze, "but you can get reasonable data in time to have an impact on how we deal with future crises."

'Island on Fire" by Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe is published by Profile Books, £10.99

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