Laki Volcano and Eldmessa

Updated: May 27, 2020

230 years ago, volcanic fissures opened up on each side of the Laki Volcano in southern Iceland. Lakagígar, the Icelandic name for the Craters of Laki, are located between the Mýrdalsjökull and Vatnajökull glaciers.

The eruptions lasted eight months from 08 Jun 1783 to 07 Feb 1784 and must have been frightening indeed for our ancestors.

I wrote the following story last year and want to share it with you again on the occasion of the 230 years that have passed since the eruptions.

Our Icelandic ancestors survived one of the greatest disasters of all time. On Sunday, June 8, 1783 at 9 am, the Laki craters (Lakagígar) began erupting and this natural catastrophe severely threatened the lives of our ancestors not only in Iceland but throughout the world. Many of their friends and family did not survive.

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One fifth of the population in Iceland died, which was about 10,000 people. Over one million people throughout the world died because of this volcanic eruption and many more were affected across the globe from repercussions of this colossal environmental occurrence. One resource states that up to six million people worldwide died from this eight-month emission of sulfur into the air.

Some evidence exists that proves mighty Nile River was even affected. A famine afflicted Egypt in 1784 and about one-sixth of its population died.

About 130 craters opened up on each side of the Laki mountain in fissures about 27 kilometers/almost 17 miles long. Lava flowed through the river valleys and over the farms. Researchers have identified ten eruptive episodes that each started with a swarm of earthquakes. Scientists estimate that over 14 cubic kilometers of lava flowed from these fissures – that is over 3.5 trillion gallons! While the 565 square km of lava destroyed property, it was the poisonous gases that killed the animals and the people.

Reverend Jón Steingrímsson (1728-1791) was the pastor at Kirkjubæjarklaustur (Kirkju is church, bæjar is farm, klaustur is cloister) during the time of the Laki eruption. He wrote a great eyewitness account of the eruption, lava flows, and event observations. His writings have been accepted as scientific knowledge about the Laki eruption. The English publication is called, “Fires of the Earth” and the following paragraph is from this book.

Séra Jón Steingrímsson

“This past week, and the two prior to it, more poison fell from the sky than words can describe: ash, volcanic hairs, rain full of sulphur and saltpeter, all of it mixed with sand. The snouts, nostrils, and feet of livestock grazing or walking on the grass turned bright yellow and raw. All water went tepid and light blue in color and gravel slides turned gray. All the earth’s plants burned, withered and turned gray, one after another, as the fire increased and neared the settlements.”

Reverend Jón gathered his congregation at the church on July 20, 1783 where he gave a passionate sermon 42 days after the first eruption. This sermon is known as “The Fire Mass” (Eldmassan) and he is known as “The Pastor of the Fire.” The lava was flowing ever closer and headed directly toward their church. The pastor and his congregation believed this would be their last time to gather in this house of worship.

Reverend Jón writes that it was so hot and foggy outside that the people could not see the church until they were right in front of it. He said that thunder and lightning were raging outside as they prayed to God. The documentation shows that on that day, the lava stopped in its tracks about one mile from the church. Researchers have shown that the lava flowed about 35 km in only four days during part of the eruption event. The Icelanders believed that Reverend Jón had performed a miracle by stopping the lava flow and saving the church and surrounding area from imminent destruction.

The eruption stopped February 7, 1784 – 245 days after it had started. In the aftermath, a drop in global temperatures caused crop failures in Europe and may have even been the cause of droughts in other locations around the globe. In the area of Great Britain, the summer of 1783 was called “Sand Summer” with all of the ash that fell on their country. There was a famine in Egypt and less rain all over areas of Africa because of the increased temperatures in the southern hemisphere. Affects have been found all over the globe with crop failures in Scotland and severe weather extremes everywhere that lasted about two years. In North America, the winter of 1784 was the longest and one of the coldest on record causing the Mississippi River to freeze down to New Orleans and ice to form in the Gulf of Mexico.

Benjamin Franklin recorded his observations in a 1784 lecture: “During several of the summer months of the year 1783, when the effect of the sun’s rays to heat the earth in these northern regions should have been greater, there existed a constant fog over all Europe, and a great part of North America. This fog was of a permanent nature; it was dry, and the rays of the sun seemed to have little effect towards dissipating it, as they easily do a moist fog, arising from water. They were indeed rendered so faint in passing through it, that when collected in the focus of a burning glass they would scarce kindle brown paper. Of course, their summer effect in heating the Earth was exceedingly diminished. Hence the surface was early frozen. Hence the first snows remained on it unmelted, and received continual additions. Hence the air was more chilled, and the winds more severely cold. Hence perhaps the winter of 1783–4 was more severe than any that had happened for many years.”

But none of the countries suffered more than Iceland where they had the “Mist Hardships” (Móðuharðindin). This was the poisonous mist of fluorine and sulfur dioxide which settled over Iceland. It covered up hay and grasslands. Fodder for the animals was ruined, which caused about 80% of the sheep and 50% of the cattle and horses to die from famine and poisoning. Breathing the sulfur dioxide causes difficult breathing and swelling of the throat and lungs. The haze covered the sun and the moon. They were both obscured by this haze and they both took on a red glow.

At the time, only about one-third of the population worked as fishermen. The others were all farmers. Around the coastal areas, the fishing families had better survival rates.

These ten eruptions, known as the “Skafta River Fires” (Skaftáreldar or Síðueldur), were very terrifying and lengthy but the environmental consequences that prevailed for about two years afterwards were the real killers. Scientists have written about the unusual extreme heat in northern and western Europe caused from the warming induced at the beginning of the Laki emissions. Then afterwards, the northern hemisphere climate became very cold due to the haze that reduced incoming heat from the sun. Tree ring growth in parts of Siberia showed the least growth in 500-600 years. A study funded in part by NASA has found that the Laki volcano even shrunk the mighty Nile River. Detrimental conditions continued around the globe.

Laki Fissure

At the time, Iceland was under Danish rule. The Danish leaders suggested that everyone evacuate but this was disregarded by the Icelanders. The population eventually came back. In about twenty years, the population recovered to about 50,000.

Reverend Jón’s wife was Þórunn Hannesdóttir Scheving. She is the sister to my 6th Great Grandfather, Lárus Hannesson Scheving. Their father was Hannes Lauritzson Scheving. He was a sheriff and a wealthy farmer with many farms around Múnaþverá, Eyjafjörður. Our ancestor, Lárus, died 05 Jul 1784 at the age of 61 just five months after the eruptions ceased but the repercussions would be felt for a long time to come. His sister, the wife of Reverend Jón, died five months later on 07 Dec 1784 at the age of 66. The destruction continued but the hardy Icelanders did what they could to rebuild their lives.

In 1974, the Kirkjubæjarklaustur Chapel was consecrated. It was built on the east side of the foundations of the ancient church. The Reverend Jón is buried in the old cemetery with a columnar basalt gravestone.

There are some tours to the Laki area which is part of the Grimsvötn caldera. Some hearty and healthy hikers travel on the area trails.

I was not able to explore this area last year because of rushing between International Visits but I have read the book, “Fires of the Earth,” by Reverend Jón. It is so interesting and scary to read his account of this disaster.

There is a very good 15-minute documentary called Eldmessa that you can watch at Icelandic Cinema Online.

Learning about our ancestors and what was happening during their lives helps us understand where we came from. Do you have any family stories about Iceland volcanoes?