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‘Island on Fire: The Extraordinary Story of a Forgotten Volcano That Covered a Continent in Darkness’

by Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe

Pegasus Books, 224 pp., $26.95

Book review

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Early in the morning of June 8, 1783, the Rev. Jón Steingrímsson observed a colossal black cloud rolling toward his church on the south side of Iceland, about halfway between the country’s most famous modern volcanoes, Grimsvötn and Eyjafjallajokull.

Within minutes the sky was black, followed over the next days and months by tremors, ash fall, acidic rain and lava flows. Steingrímsson survived and went on to preach what has become known as the Fire Mass, which many claimed stopped a lava flow from destroying his church. He also left behind a detailed daily reckoning of the eruption and its impact on his community.

Steingrímsson’s journal helps form the basis for a new book about that volcanic eruption of 1783 and 1784. Known as Lakagígar, or Laki, for short, the eight-month-long eruption killed at least half the country’s livestock and up to one-fifth of its human population.

The Laki eruption also disrupted weather patterns across Europe in what is arguably one of the more destructive eruptions of all time. And, yet, it is little known, even in Iceland. That will change with the publication of “Island on Fire: The Extraordinary Story of a Forgotten Volcano That Covered a Continent in Darkness” by science writers Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe.

Go to Laki today and you will be underwhelmed. Unlike many classic volcanoes, Laki is not a cinder cone. Instead, the eruption burst out of a series of fissures that left behind a row of small craters. Laki still produced enough lava, estimated to have shot up nearly 5,000 feet in the air, that it could bury Manhattan up to the 75th floor of the Empire State Building. (Iceland’s most recent eruption, at Bardarbunga, has a similar eruptive style and has produced the most lava of any Iceland volcano since Laki.)

What made Laki so deadly was the duration of the eruption and gasses it emitted.

In particular, sulfurous emissions spread across Europe in a “peculiar haze, or smoky fog … unlike anything known within the memory of man,” wrote British naturalist Gilbert White. The dry fog led to both record summer high and winter low temperatures, as well as violent electrical storms, sudden floods, and air so thick and odorous that it burned eyes and throats.

One geographer has estimated that the fogs and subsequent alteration of worldwide weather patterns may have killed as many as six million people, which would correspond to a death toll of 30 million with a modern world population.

In interweaving Steingrímsson’s account with modern science, diligent research and on-the-ground reporting Witze and Kanipe have written a compelling and engrossing story of Laki and its worldwide impact. As the best book authors do, they have also ferreted out facts and examples that make their specific story one with implications for modern readers.

It is a book that will surely make you want to go to Iceland, or at least pay careful heed to the next time one if its many volcanoes erupt.

Seattle author David B. Williams’ latest book is “Cairns: Messengers in Stone” (Mountaineers Books).