Monday, February 23, 2015

Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe's "Island on Fire"

Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe are science writers in Boulder, Colorado. Witze is a correspondent for Nature who specializes in the earth and planetary sciences. Kanipe is an astronomy author whose books include The Cosmic Connection: How Astronomical Events Impact Life on Earth and Chasing Hubble’s Shadows: The Search for Galaxies at the Edge of Time. Asteroid jeffkanipe is named in his honor.

They applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, Island on Fire: The Extraordinary Story of a Forgotten Volcano That Changed the World, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Island on Fire places the reader smack in the middle of volcanic action. It is late 1783, and the Icelandic volcano Laki has been erupting for months. Laki was no ordinary eruption; it poured out more lava than anyone had seen for centuries. Icelanders are hardened to the volcanic activity on their island, but even they struggled to cope with the sheer scope of the disaster. The Laki eruption annihilated the homes and the livelihoods of many rural communities. Page 99 describes the volcano’s widespread effects:
By late autumn, the situation for both humans and animals was dire. Laki’s ash had spread across nearly all of Iceland, poisoning the landscape far and wide. Huge areas of grassland had been destroyed, and much of the existing hay stocks contaminated. Deprived of pastureland and fodder, sheep and cattle perished. People began starving to death by December 1783, and thousands more of all ages and classes were to follow as winter progressed.
We then re-visit one of the main characters in Island on Fire, an Icelandic clergyman who lived near the eruption and recorded its many horrors in a detailed chronicle. His tales are some of the most descriptive of any early volcanic eruption; scientists today use it as an important reference to understand the extraordinary impact of this event. The clergyman, Jón Steingrímsson, described the extreme measures to which Laki had driven many Icelanders:
Jón recorded the many appalling measures taken by the starving. Some ‘cooked what skins and hide ropes they owned, and restricted themselves to the equivalent of one leather shoepiece per meal, which was sufficient if soaked in soured milk and spread with fat.’ Others resorted to cutting up hay into fine pieces and mixing that with meal to make porridge or bread. Fish bones found half-buried along the shoreline were collected, cleaned, boiled and crushed in milk as a gruel. Some in Jón’s parish took to eating horsemeat; most of them died. Others, Jón dryly observed, ‘would rather die than eat it.’
In the end, one-fifth of Iceland’s entire population perished in what they called the “mist hardships,” brought on by the Laki eruption. Island on Fire tells the story not only of the local people like Jón, but also the wider story of how the eruption affected European and scientific history. As lava and ash covered Iceland, so too did Laki’s volcanic gases spread across Europe, killing people and crops from England to France to Germany. Eminent scientists across Europe tried to understand the cause of the mysterious haze; Ben Franklin and several others eventually cracked the puzzle, reasoning that it came from a far-off Icelandic volcano. The Laki gases cooled the Northern Hemisphere for years and set off climate change that led to famine in Egypt and beyond. Its final death toll may have been well over a million people.
Visit the Island on Fire website.

--Marshal Zeringue