Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Iceland's Calamitous Childhood

John flags us to a Wall Street Journal pierce on all the ways the Iceland volcano saga* could get even worse:
The worse case scenario, which is unlikely, involves this eruption triggering another, larger eruption. There are 35 active volcanoes in Iceland, and one eruption has been known to set off another. The worse case happened in 1783, with an eruption lasting eight months. That eruption killed off much of the livestock and agriculture in Iceland, which in turn caused the death of about 25% of the island's population.

The eruption also eventually killed tens of thousands of people on the Continent. Benjamin Franklin was in Paris at the time and was one of the first to connect the rapid change in local weather that collapsed European agriculture with a volcanic explosion. 1783 became known as the horrible "year without summer." Europe plunged into a period of poverty that lasted for years. Some historians believe that this may have contributed to the French Revolution of 1789.

Eeuw. But come to think of it, is my memory right that Iceland is a society that was nurtured on misfortune? Here's the ultimate calamitologist, Jared Diamond:
An example of a society that suffered from disastrous consequences of reasoning by false analogy was the society of Norwegian Vikings who immigrated to Iceland beginning in the year AD 871. Their familiar homeland of Norway has heavy clay soils ground up by glaciers. Those soils are sufficiently heavy that, if the vegetation covering them is cut down, they are too heavy to be blown away. Unfortunately for the Viking colonists of Iceland, Icelandic soils are as light as talcum powder. They arose not through glacial grinding, but through winds carrying light ashes blown out in volcanic eruptions. The Vikings cleared the forests over those soils in order to create pasture for their animals. Unfortunately, the ash that was light enough for the wind to blow in was light enough for the wind to blow out again when the covering vegetation had been removed. Within a few generations of the Vikings' arriving in Iceland, half of Iceland's top soil had eroded into the ocean.
I guess it is too much to say "they then waited 900 years until the coming of international banking, and another collapse." At least in the interim they had dried fish. And there's this.
*Saga? Iceland? Get it? Oh I am so clever I make myself sick.

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