Soil in focus 5

Mollic Histic Silandic Andosol (Eutric Turbic Drainic) (IS-001)

Soil in focus 5: IYS2015

Soil as an archive: disaster, climate change and revolution

Soil can function as an archive of natural and cultural events in the past. The soil from Iceland shown here bears evidence of natural disaster of a great volcanic eruption with great impact on the climate and society.


The Laki volcano in Iceland is a fissure in earth crust (Photo: Ulrich Latzenhofer)

This soil from Iceland was formed in a valley bottom, were water and dead plants accumulate, forming a peat soil. The soil is formed on a mix of organic material with volcanic ashes and some pure ash layers over peaty material. The lighter coloured ash layers, in between the peat (see lines at 48 – 61 cm depth), are silent witnesses of the humanitarian disaster that followed the dramatic eruption of the Laki volcano in 1783. The dust brought into the atmosphere caused a global lowering of temperatures, negatively affecting crop production, especially in Northern Europe. Deaths were mourned because of starvation and the effects of the fall-out: sulphur and fluoride brought into the atmosphere. In France, famine and poverty were aggravated by the crop failures in 1785 and 1788 caused by climate extremes. The impact of the eruption of the Laki volcano is therefore thought to have been the spark for the French revolution.

The ash layers seen here are pages in the book of the landscape that is soil: an archive for past events, in this case with dramatic consequences for society.

Facts and dates:

2800 BP: ash layer from eruption of Hekla volcano

1783: Icelandic society disrupted (25% of the population died and 50% of the livestock perished from fluorine poisoning.

230.000 victims in the UK (sulphur clouds affecting lungs)

Famines in various countries, including Egypt and India

10 year of climate change globally, but especially in the norther hemisphere

Coldest winter in the US: 1784 Soil classification (WRB, 2006): Mollic Histic Silandic Andosol (Eutric Turbic Drainic)