Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Little Geopolitical Vulcanism, or, How A Volcano Changed The World

In geological time, Iceland is a very young place. It is a continent being born as others are being eroded away. It sits astride the junction of the Eurasian plate and the North American plate at a particularly thin area of the crust called the Iceland Plume.
Iceland is being continually created by the volcanic activity. We saw the dramatic birth of an island, Surtsey in the 60's. Surtsey has proven to be a dramatic example of how volcanic activity creates land in the sea and then in short order, life fills the niches and in sci-fic terms, terraforms it.
The history of the islands of the South Pacific are geographic evidence of the movement of the plates over these hot spots. We are seeing the evidence now in the Hawaian Islands as new land is created as the plates advance over the hot spot.

In the North Atlantic, though, the junction of the plates remain fairly stationary, so the land mass of Iceland increases, steadily. The Atlantic is actually getting wider, and the Pacific is shrinking as the convection machine of the earth steadily does it work.
I am seeing the evidence of the Icelandic eruption of volcano under the Eyjafallajokull glacier this week in the dramatic sunsets caused by the volcanic ash in the atmosphere. Of course all of Northern Europe, including the local airports here are feeling the effects as most major air traffic has been suspended because of the effects of abrasive volcanic ash on jet turbines. I remember flying on Peoples Air from Orly to JFK in New York in the 90's and seeing the huge dramatic plume of steam and ash from an Icelandic Vocano then.
The weather was moving in a much more favorable direction and it didn't affect the air travel.
So, we see air travel affected for the time being. This eruption, though is not really that big in the scale of things. Volcanic eruptions have altered the course of life on this planet many times. They have caused mass extinctions and altered weather patterns for decades.
This hasn't been the first time Icelandic Vocanic activity has affected the rest of the planet in modern times.
From 1783 to 1784, the fissure from the southern Icelandic Volcano, Laki spewed ash and poisonous gases killing much of the islands livestock, destroying agriculture and killing as much as a quater of the population.
But the effects of Laki didn't stop there.

Then, as now, there were more wide-ranging impacts. In Norway, the Netherlands, the British Isles, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, in North America and even Egypt, the Laki eruption had its consequences, as the haze of dust and sulphur particles thrown up by the volcano was carried over much of the northern hemisphere.
Ships moored up in many ports, effectively fogbound. Crops were affected as the fall-out from the continuing eruption coincided with an abnormally hot summer. A clergyman, the Rev Sir John Cullum, wrote to the Royal Society that barley crops "became brown and withered … as did the leaves of the oats; the rye had the appearance of being mildewed".
The British naturalist Gilbert White described that summer in his classic Natural History of Selborne as "an amazing and portentous one … the peculiar haze, or smokey fog, that prevailed for many weeks in this island, and in every part of Europe, and even beyond its limits, was a most extraordinary appearance, unlike anything known within the memory of man.
"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."
Across the Atlantic, Benjamin Franklin wrote of "a constant fog over all Europe, and a great part of North America".
The disruption to weather patterns meant the ensuing winter was unusually harsh, with consequent spring flooding claiming more lives. In America the Mississippi reportedly froze at New Orleans.
The eruption is now thought to have disrupted the Asian monsoon cycle, prompting famine in Egypt. Environmental historians have also pointed to the disruption caused to the economies of northern Europe, where food poverty was a major factor in the build-up to the French revolution of 1789.
Volcanologists at the Open University's department of earth sciences say the impact of the Laki eruptions had profound consequences.
Dr John Murray said: "Volcanic eruptions can have significant effects on weather patterns for from two to four years, which in turn have social and economic consequences. We shouldn't discount their possible political impacts."


mud_rake said...

Good socio-geologic connection, Microdot. My son, grandson and I were talking about this volcano just this evening and it prompted us to Google 'little ice ages' because they are caused by such volcanic activity.

There were several which, of course, disrupted the lives of millions of people who depended upon cyclical crop planting and harvesting. Starvation was rampant during those times.

I wonder if those apocalyptic christians are noting the tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanoes and are getting their boarding passes ready for the great Lift-Off to Heaven??

microdot said...

Porky Limbaugh told his braindead androids that the Icelandic eruption was gods anger at the Health Care Reform Bill...TRUE!

Engineer of Knowledge said...

Hello Microdot,
The level of stupidity that can be reached by Limbaugh’s audience just never ceases to amaze me. I guess much like the Teabaggers; their stupidity just feeds off the stupidity of each other and hence forth, just becomes a compounding factor enabling them to reach new levels of STUPID.

mud_rake said...

Gentlemen- remember when in high school the 'nerds' were those boys with slide-rules in their belts who did well in every math class they took?

Today, apparently, in America, 'nerds' have grown to all of us who actually pay attention to the facts, which, naturally, excludes the Beck and Limbaugh audience.

Dumb is in big-time.