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Poison gas cloud that killed 30,000 Britons (and it could happen again)

Environmental News: United Kingdom

We should heed the lessons, experts warn, of a little-known environmental disaster that took place two centuries ago
Photo: Laki Volcano, Iceland

By David Keys
Published: 14 January 2007
It sounds like the plot of a blockbuster film, but according to scientists, tens of thousands of people in this country face the threat of being poisoned by lethal gas - from volcanoes 600 miles away in Iceland. Research by a British academic has demonstrated how a volcanic gas cloud emanating from an Icelandic volcano killed 30,000 Britons in a hitherto little-studied environmental disaster two centuries ago in 1783. "People died in such vast numbers because the volcanic cloud exacerbated their respiratory illnesses...A similar eruption today would kill up to 100,000 people in this country because we now have a much larger population and a much bigger percentage of it is elderly and therefore more vulnerable." Iceland poses a particular threat not only because it is relatively near to the UK, but also several of its volcanoes are of a particularly dangerous type because of the vast quantities of atmospheric pollution they can produce. Initially the 1783 eruption raised temperatures and severely damaged vegetation, including crops. After several months of continuous eruption, sulphur levels in the atmosphere reduced the amount of solar heat reaching the surface and temperatures fell alarmingly. A further 200,000 people died in France, the Low Countries and northern Italy. In Iceland itself 25 per cent of the population was wiped out.

Nov, 2006
A series of large volcanic eruptions in Iceland in 1783, an unusually cold winter in the northern hemisphere and a severe famine in Egypt were all linked by an atmospheric "domino effect", say researchers.
The scientists believe they could use the data to predict the climatic effects of large volcanic eruptions in the future, allowing people to prepare for them. Graph Above: Following a volcanic eruption, large amounts of sulphur dioxide (SO2), hydrochloric acid (HCl) and ash are spewed into the stratosphere. In most cases, HCl condenses with water vapour and is rained out of the volcanic cloud. SO2 from the cloud is transformed into sulphuric acid which quickly condenses, producing aerosol particles that linger in the atmosphere for much longer (Graphic: NASA/LaRC)

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