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Modern Britain

Killer Cloud Hits Britain

by Dan Walker, 19 January 2007

A little over two hundred years ago, the eruption of a volcano in Iceland sent a huge toxic cloud across Western Europe. It was the greatest natural disaster to hit modern Britain, killing many thousands - but it has been almost forgotten by history.

Such multitudes are indisposed by fevers in this country that farmers have difficulty gathering their harvest, the labourers having been almost every day carried out of the field incapable of work and many die.

So wrote Hertfordshire poet William Cowper in the summer of 1783. Across the country, newspapers reported the presence of a thick smog and a dull sun, 'coloured like it has been soaked in blood'. The cloud first reached Britain on 22 June 1783. In his Naturalist's Journal, Gilbert White reported:

The peculiar haze or smoky fog that prevailed in this island and even beyond its limits was a most extraordinary appearance, unlike anything known within the memory of man.

The killer cloud lasted for weeks, if not months, and engulfed much of Western Europe as, thousands of kilometres away in Iceland, the Laki volcano continued to erupt. Millions of tonnes of toxic gas were carried by the prevailing winds across Scandinavia and eventually to Britain.

The cloud contained sulphur dioxide and sulphuric acid which attacked the lungs of its victims, choking and killing men and women, rich and poor alike.

Forgotten disaster

The events are better documented in Iceland where up to a third of the population died. Yet incredibly the British tragedy wrought by Laki has been largely forgotten. Evidence which was brought together for an edition of BBC Two's Timewatch series in 2007 made clear the extent of the disaster.

Panic and fear were widespread - as was death. But just how many died, no-one knew until recently. Dr John Grattan of Aberystwyth University, Wales, spent a decade before this scrutinising hundreds of local parish records in his search for evidence of Laki's deadly effect. In Maulden in Bedfordshire, the normal number of people who may have been expected to die in the summer would be about four or five - and in the summer of 1783 seventeen people died there.

In nearby Cranfield, twenty-three people died in the summer and usually the total there would have been around six. In Ampthill, the total was eleven when usually it would have been about five. Parish by parish, these figures were adding up considerably. Dr Grattan's research revealed a similar pattern across the county, and across much of eastern and central England.

From the fives and tens in each parish, Laki's death toll increased into the hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands. In total, Grattan estimated that Laki's killer cloud took the lives of 23,000 British men and women, making it the greatest natural disaster in modern British history. France and other countries were similarly hit.

It could also happen again. Iceland has eighteen volcanoes which have been active in recent centuries, the greatest concentration anywhere on the planet. Leading vulcanologist, Professor Stephen Self of the Open University, was certain that there would be another such eruption after studying the Laki eruption for himself.

It would be difficult to predict what size it will be, but there will certainly be future events like this from Iceland. Ash clouds, gas clouds, and sulphuric acid clouds from Iceland could sweep across Britain again. The 2010 eruption which caused so much trouble across Europe was a minor taste of a full-blown eruption.



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