Island on fire: the extraordinary story of Laki, the forgotten volcano that turned eighteenth-century Europe dark by Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe. Profile Books, London, 2014. No. of pages: 224. Price: UK£10.99. ISBN 978-178125-0044 (cloth).
Article first published online: 15 JUN 2014
Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Special Issue: Triassic tectonics and mineral systems (Part 2)
Volume 49, Issue 6, pages 657–658, November-December 2014
How to Cite
2014), Island on fire: the extraordinary story of Laki, the forgotten volcano that turned eighteenth-century Europe dark, Geol. J., 49, 657–658, doi: 10.1002/gj.2580(
- Issue published online: 14 NOV 2014
- Article first published online: 15 JUN 2014
- Manuscript Received: 26 MAY 2014
- Manuscript Accepted: 26 MAY 2014
Volcanic eruptions and hazards make good subjects for semi-popular books on geology. Major eruptions that had a violent impact on humankind have received the best press, such as Krakatoa (Winchester, 2003) and Mont Pelée (Zebrowski, 2002). Witze and Kanipe have done geology a service by popularizing a ‘forgotten’ volcano. The late 18th century eruption of Laki was not particularly violent, but its detrimental effects in Iceland and Europe were mainly due to its voluminous and poisonous gaseous exhalations over an extended period. These formed a poisonous fog that spread from Iceland to Europe and beyond.
Island on Fire is well-produced, readable and inexpensively priced for a hardback book. The book's structure is logical, with a brace of chapters early on introducing the gross structure of the Earth, volcanoes and their products. There are also later chapters dealing with volcanic hazards in general. These are all good, but it sometimes feels like Laki and the eruption of 1783–1784 have been forgotten. Twelve pages of detailed endnotes will be useful to any student pursuing a particular subject yet further, but I admit that I would have preferred a reference list. Illustrations are good and wide-ranging, and the index is adequate.
My main criticism of Island of Fire is the broad brush used to paint a poor picture of certain aspects of the history of geology in the 20th century. As usual in such volumes, Alfred Wegner is described as a meteorologist (p. 38), not a geologist or geophysicist, despite making such a seminal contribution to the Earth sciences. And the implication that continental drift was forgotten in the 30 years following his death (pp. 40–41) is a very North American viewpoint (Oreskes, 1999); other research programmes during this period continued to extend Wegnerian ideas.
It is a skilful sleight of hand by the authors to keep the reader involved when the eruption, while locally destructive, did not have the dramatic climax of a Vesuvius or a Krakatoa. For example, they keep the most famous modern eruption of lethal gas, Lake Nyos in 1986, offstage until three quarters of the way through the book (p. 162).
My overall assessment of Island on Fire is most favourable. I thank the authors for providing this fine account of a poorly known event. Island on Fire is recommended to anyone with an interest in volcanoes and their hazards.
- 1999. The Rejection of Continental Drift: Theory and Method in American Earth Sciences. Oxford University Press: New York; xi+420.
- 2003. Krakatoa, the Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883. Viking: London; xviii+416.
- 2002. The Last Days of St. Pierre: The Volcanic Disaster that Claimed Thirty Thousand Lives. Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick; x+291.