The Forgotten Climate Apocalypse Of 1783

“A Mexican farmer sees smoke coming out of the middle of his cornfield. A week later there’s a volcano a thousand feet high. There’s no history of anything until it happens. Then there is.” —Jerome Armstrong, Volcano

In A Nutshell

In the summer of 1783, the Laki Volcano in Iceland erupted, killing thousands and sending a plume of sulphur into the atmosphere above Europe. What followed was a year of horror; as the weather turned lethal, a mist of blood seemed to hang over the continent, and the climate went haywire.

The Whole Bushel

In 1783, the Laki Volcano in Iceland exploded. Around 10,000 Icelanders were killed—almost one-fifth of the country’s population. Up to 60 percent of livestock was destroyed and entire regions of the country laid to waste—but the volcano’s effects weren’t confined to this one island. For six months the volcano pumped out more sulphur dioxide than has ever been released into the atmosphere in modern history. And that cloud of sulphur would have catastrophic consequences across the Northern Hemisphere.

That summer, Europe was plagued by disaster. A thick fog settled in the West, dense and poisonous. Crops shriveled and died, gigantic hailstones came crashing to Earth, and an intense, suffocating heat sparked apocalyptic thunderstorms. The naturalist Gilbert White described the haze as being “unlike anything known within the memory of man.” According to his account:

“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.”

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For people across Europe and North America, it seemed like the end times had come. When the fog finally dissipated and winter came, it brought little relief. The ground froze, temperatures plummeted to the lowest in 250 years and 8,000 people froze to death in the UK alone. In New Orleans, the Mississippi was said to have turned to solid ice. When spring came, the thaw triggered deadly flash floods, and the USA became engulfed in howling snowstorms. Back in Europe, the economy ground to a halt while famines in Egypt caused food prices to shoot up—perhaps indirectly causing the 1789 French Revolution.

Today, the Laki Haze is all but forgotten—everywhere except Iceland, where the combined effects are known as “the hardship of the fog.” In an age where minor hurricanes and unseasonal snowfall are routinely described as signs of an impending climate apocalypse, perhaps we should all spare a thought for the 30,000 Europeans who died during that harrowing summer—when it seemed like Mother Nature had finally turned.

Show Me The Proof

The eruption that changed Iceland forever
How an Icelandic volcano helped spark the French Revolution
Local and Global Impacts of the 1783-84 Laki Eruption in Iceland

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