Laki craters are a wonderful result of the tremendous devastation that occurred in Iceland in the 18th century. A global catastrophe that killed thousands of people, animals, destroyed much property and was felt almost everywhere. Volcanic ash covered the sky causing famine even in Japan! Today, the Lakagígar crater area in south Iceland attracts many visitors from around the world who come to see unique natural phenomenon which is also a reminder to us all how fate lies in the hands of Mother Earth.
The Lakagígar eruption occurred in 1783 and was the largest volcanic eruption since settlement in Iceland. The flow of lava generated was the third largest on earth since the last Ice Age. The Lakagígar region and line of Laki craters were formed over a period of eight months between the years 1783-1784 and named Laki – they are the highest mountains in the region. The eruption was preceded by earthquakes, which shook the region for several days. The eruption took place on June 8, 1783 and was accompanied by thunderous explosions, the pungent smell of sulfur, ash and landslides.
The Lakagígar Craters are located along a line of ten crevasses, each of which is 2-5 km long. At the southern end of the line of craters is the Hnúta Mountain, where the first crevasse appeared. Frequent earthquakes accompanied eruptions each one causing a new crevasse north of the previous one. Apparently, there were probably at least 10 cycles of volcanic activity for eight months and as a result a line of craters were formed, the largest being in the middle and in all a total of 135 craters. The Laki eruption changed the surface completely. The region facing Laki was covered with muddy earth from the river; in the south were green valleys with farms and swamps where the Skafta River flowed.
The eruptions were named Skaftáreldar which means "Fires on the Skafta River" because of the lava that flowed through and filled the river on the third day of the eruption. The Hverfisfljót River also filled with flowing lava causing it to change route. These two rivers formed channels of lava, the western crevasse called Eldhraun and the eastern crevasse called Brunuhraun. Lava filled valleys, flowing at all levels, in certain places the lava flew over 40 km and reached the coastline.
Two months later, in late July, the eruption subsided on the south side, but continued more intensely in northern areas. All activities ended on 7 February, eight months after they began.
The answer to the question of whether a similar eruption could once again take place is, probably not, however additional eruptions could occur elsewhere in the active volcanic region. There is another line of lava cones located north of Laki, called Lambavatnsgígar but it is unclear when they erupted.
There are three types of craters in the Lakagígar region: scoria cones, spatter cones and ash rings. All are Tephra Craters in various shapes and sizes, some round and some are oblong. Most of them are lava craters; they are also the highest and soar to a height of 100 meters above the surrounding areas.
Most of the lava that seeped out from the western crevasse turned into jagged and grooved blocks, whilst the lava from the eastern crevasse looks like ropes of lava. The craters were formed in different shapes and made from different types of materials, due to different levels of crater activity. The rate of gases released from the magma and contact with water determines the shape and size of the crystallization slag. Slags of lava are between 5 and 10 cm, while spatter cones can be between one to two meters in diameter. The different colors of lava and stones result from the materials in the area around the time of eruption. Red stones contain iron oxides, i.e. rust, whilst black stones do not. Black sand often called "volcanic ash" is carried by water and wind, filling cracks, cavities and holes.
Eldhraun lava area is almost entirely covered with vegetation in plains near the coast and up to the crater crevasses, 650 m high. At the end of the eruption, the region was of course bare, but over time, vegetation has taken over. At Laki, you can see all stages of the process: first cooled and crystallized lava, then the growth of moss, grass, shrubs and trees. The vegetation development was affected by volcanic activity, greater-than-average rainfall and a relatively temperate climate. Even though it rains a lot, the water percolates through the lava fairly quickly therefore making it difficult for most of the plants to feed. Moss grows continually, and new layers grow and cover the dead and decomposing layers. The vegetation is not sufficient to provide for animals and birds, although there are a number of bird species that come to breed here. The Arctic fox is the only mammal living in the area.
As stated, the eruption was the largest destructive event since the settlement in Iceland. Toxic ash fell almost everywhere in the country and toxic gases spread through the air. Dark clouds of ash descended on the coastal area and brought darkness. Ash poisoned vegetation causing it to wilt and therefore affected the animal's food supply. The Icelandic winter brought cold and hunger and because there was no vegetation and the animal population was so reduced, many people died of starvation.
Reports on the events reached the King of Denmark, who at the time ruled Iceland, in autumn, several months after the start of the eruption. He sent a ship with food supplies that left Denmark in November, but was unable to reach Iceland until spring. Heavy clouds, cold weather and ice gathered around the coast of Iceland, preventing the departure and arrival of ships. When the supplies finally arrived, they were distributed slowly, due to the deterioration of the population. The situation was so bad that the king considered transferring the residents to Jutland in Denmark.
Two years after the eruption the number cattle in Iceland fell by half, the number of horses fell by one-third and only one-fifth of sheep survived. Ten thousand people died. A fifth of all residents.
In Laki, which at the time mainly a farming area half of the population died, 20 farms were completely covered in lava and 30 were closed for a long time.
An interesting story from this period is the "Fire Sermon". After a month and a half after the beginning of the eruption, the priest from Kirkjubæjarklaustur village gathered his community in church on Sunday. He believed that the eruption was God's punishment for the sins of the community. The lava flowed towards the village, and explosions was heard everywhere. The priest turned to God in prayer and assured that the community would refrain from sin and asked to redeem them. Surprisingly the lava flow stopped just short of the village.
The devastating eruption did not only affect Iceland but was felt in the entire northern hemisphere. The gradual expansion of the sulfur gas cloud spread and affected the climate. Two days after the eruption clouds of gases formed a fog that reached the Faroe Islands, Norway and Scotland. A week later, it spread over the entire European continent. Black fog covered the sky in Finland and reached the Balkans. European press described the sun as a blood-red disk at sunrise and sunset. They described that the pollution was so strong, you could look at the sun directly. A month later the fog reached Russia and China.
Apart from Iceland, the ecological effect was felt primarily in Scandinavia, Western Europe and the British Isles and affected crops. In July, the effect impacted Russia, Siberia and China. Acid rain caused leaves to fall from the trees and killed the spring germination. Overall temperatures fell by 1.3 degrees. The cold weather lasted for three years with devastating global effects. In the summer of 1873, Japan's rice crop failed due to cold and wet weather, as a result, Japan entered the Great Famine period in its history. Similar stories came from Alaska, where entire communities died of starvation. There is a theory that states that the French Revolution was the result of the Laki eruption that brought famine to France.
The nearest town is Kirkjubæjarklaustur, located on Route 1. After traveling approximately 6 km west, take the F206 to the north. The distance from there to Laki is around 45 km. The journey takes about two hours each way, and involves crossing several wide rivers. Another option is to take a bus trip that runs every morning from Skaftafell to Kirkjubæjarklaustur.
This trail leads to Laki summit, a height of 818 m, located in the center row of craters. You can easily see the crevasses created in the western and northern slopes. The view from the summit and the row of craters that can be seen is spectacular. The Vatnajökull glacier and its surroundings can be clearly seen from here. The trail is marked in red, about an hour and a half and the climb is fairly steep.
This trail leads from the foot of Laki to the low slopes of the craters, leading through them and showing how the ground erupted. Now the rocks and lava are covered with green moss. The moss is delicate and visitors are asked to avoid stepping on it or touching it. The trail is marked in blue, is easy and takes about half an hour.
The trail passes near the water-filled crater Tjarnargígur and continues through a series of craters. Large parts of the sides of the trail are covered in delicate moss that should be avoided stepping on. The trail is easy and approximately two hours long.
A wide and impressive canyon 100 m deep and 2 km long. The canyon runs through soft rock covered and filled with layers of lava. The canyon was formed at the end of the Ice Age about two million years ago. When the ice cap melted, it created a large lake in the valley above the canyon. The water was kept in the lake by a large rock that blocked the outflow apart from a gentle trickle down into the canyon. Melting snow formed rivers that led to the rock's erosion; as a result, there was a massive jet of water that created the canyon we see today. The lake refilled again and the river eroded deeper and deeper into the rock, a phenomenon that continues in small scale to this day. The canyon is on the way to Laki.
The name means "beautiful waterfall" and has thin streams of water, creating a picturesque appearance. There are signs from the parking lot that lead up a small hill overlooking the waterfall and the channel in which it flows. The waterfall is located approximately 24 km from Kirkjubæjarklaustur on the F206.