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From the Archives: Iceland's Doomsday Scenario?

16 April 2010 4:11 pm
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As Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano continues to spew a huge amount of ash into the atmosphere and across northern Europe, Science invites you to read about an enormous eruption from Iceland's past—and what it means for the country's future.

SKAFTÁRTUNGA, ICELAND—Hildur Gestsdóttir shovels a heap of fine black soil onto a growing mound beside the unmarked grave, grateful for a breeze from a nearby glacier that's taking the edge off the strong summer sun. "It's a lovely day for grave digging," a member of her team remarks. Hildur agrees: "Conditions are perfect."

Hildur ought to know, having exhumed about 50 skeletons to date with the Institute of Archaeology in Reykjavik. Usually she's after the remains of Vikings, who settled the island 1000 years ago, or later medieval inhabitants. This grave is much more recent, dating from the late 18th century. Although the period is not her forte, the skeleton beneath Hildur's feet on Búland farm could well be a researcher's treasure, offering clues to why the eruption of the nearby Laki fissure in 1783 was so deadly. One of the largest and least appreciated eruptions in recorded history, Laki killed 10,000 Icelanders—roughly one in five—and recent studies suggest that its billowing plumes led to extreme weather and extensive illness that may have claimed thousands more lives in Britain and on the European continent.

"It's hard to fathom the impact of Laki," says volcanologist Thorvaldur Thordarson, a leading expert on the eruption. A similar blast in modern times would pump so much ash and fumes into the upper atmosphere that the ensuing sulfuric haze could shut down aviation in much of the Northern Hemisphere for months, Thordarson and Stephen Self of Open University in Milton Keynes, United Kingdom, argued in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

"It's not a matter of if but when the next Laki-like eruption will happen" in Iceland, says Thordarson, who splits his time between the University of Iceland and the University of Hawaii, Manoa. "We certainly don't want to be here when another Laki-type event hits," adds Self. Offering a tame glimpse of what the future may hold, the brief eruption of Iceland's Grímsvötn volcano earlier this month led to the cancellation or rerouting of transatlantic flights. Still, volcanologists say, the odds of a full-blown fissure eruption in this century are low.

By examining presumed victims of Laki, Hildur and her colleagues, including project leader Peter Baxter, a medical researcher at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, are testing a thesis that fluoride in Laki's emissions poisoned people directly and may account in part for the high death toll. "It was the greatest calamity to affect Iceland since human occupation began there," says Baxter.

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