First published on the Earth Institute website on April 4, 2011.
The eruption of the Laki volcano in Iceland in 1783-84 set off a cascade of catastrophe, spewing sulfuric clouds into Europe and eventually around the world. Poisonous mists and a resulting famine from loss of crops and livestock killed thousands in Iceland, up to a quarter of the population. An estimated 23,000 people in Britain died from inhaling toxic fumes. Acid rain, heat, cold, drought and floods have been attributed to the eruption, which lasted from June until February.
But a new study says that for all of its ill effects, the Laki eruption probably was not the main culprit behind one of the coldest winters in hundreds of years, as many scientists — and contemporary observer Benjamin Franklin — have speculated.
Instead, that unusually cold and snowy winter in western Europe and eastern North America may have been caused by the same climate fluctuations that led to the harsh winter of 2009-2010, according to a team of scientists from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.