The Killer Cloud of 1783
By Ruth Pringle
This article was originally published in the April 2007 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
Once in a while there is a television programme that intrigues you isn't there?
Well we watched just such a one the other night on Timewatch on BBC2 on Friday 19th January. It was a documentary about a super volcano eruption in Iceland. The volcano was named Laki and it when it erupted in 1783 it emitted 80Mt of sulphuric acid into the atmosphere. This was 80 times more powerful than Mount St. Helens, in the USA, of recent memory. The acid combined with oxygen to make a cloud of sulphur dioxide and this blew in a circular north-eastern passage across Scandinavia, Europe and then back into Britain.
It was first recorded here on 22nd June 1783 and appeared as a dense smog which hung in the air. It was particularly strong in the eastern and southern counties but spread across the whole country. People contacted many respiratory diseases and farm labourers were recorded as literally "dropping" in the fields.
Gilbert White, the famous clergyman and scientist, from Selbourne, Hampshire, plotted the event in great detail. The smog lasted all summer until September but no sooner had it dispersed than vicious storms arrived. The severe frost that autumn turned the wheat and barley yellow causing food shortages. It was an extremely cold winter that year, with thick snowfalls, followed by flooding, and a cold spring in 1784. It was a total tragedy for the Icelandic people but what was not appreciated until recently was how many Europeans died, and particularly what was the effect on Britain.
The television presenter decided to check burial records and found that Bedfordshire had been badly affected in the event. One parish recorded three times as many deaths as usual that summer and autumn.
So now I'm on a mission too! I've been through my family history records to check how many deaths I have for 1783 and 1784. I'm afraid it is lamentable how lapse I have been recording the deaths of my ancestors throughout my research and I've vowed to do better at this in future. At present I have only two probable records for this date; one in Warwickshire and the other in Hampshire. Are my lot a healthy breed or is it that my family don't originate from the eastern counties? Of cause we cannot be sure what our ancestors died of before the general registration of 1837 but I've been totally fascinated to think what they must have endured during this short period.
An interesting footnote is that Laki could "blow" again at any time and we are no further forward at protecting ourselves against this! It depends on the wind direction as to where the acid rain would fall this time, but the Disaster Management Centre at Coventry University are doing a study of the possibilities.
Why don't you check your family deaths for 1783/84 too? Was it Laki's sulphur dioxide smog that got them all that time ago?!
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