Underworld gods vent their anger

POOR old Iceland is in the dog-house.

The world recession hit the land of ice and fire hard; the banks went bust leaving customers, native and foreign, seething with rage. Then the volcano with the unpronounceable name began spewing out lethal ash and the squeaky-clean image of Nordic resilience in a land of environmental purity was in tatters. My dark side says it serves the Icelanders right for starting to slaughter whales again. At any rate, the gods of the underworld are angry. Of course I’m being mean and petty but nobody died.

It’s not the first time that Iceland has been punished. In 1783, Laki flung 90 billion tonnes of lava into the air, killing 9,000 people. Ash clouds and sulphurous fumes spread across Europe. The lack of sunlight affected crops as far away as Egypt. But the greatest of Laki’s aftershocks was political. Repeated harvest failures caused unrest in France leading to revolution six years later. Vulcan’s anger had shaped the destiny of humanity and not for the first time.

Pliny the Elder, who wrote the world’s first natural history book, was overcome by fumes and died while investigating the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD. Pompeii, a town of 25,000 souls, was covered in ash to a depth of six metres.

The most celebrated big bang of more recent times was that of Krakatoa an island off Java in 1883. The shock wave travelled five times around the world. It was not, however, the most powerful modern explosion. That distinction goes to Tambora, also in Indonesia, which detonated with the force of 60,000 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs; 1816 would be remembered as “the year of no summer”.

Atmospheric dust created the glorious sunsets captured on canvas by JM Turner. Byron penned the lines: “I had a dream which was not all a dream / The bright sun was extinguished and the stars did wander.”

But the volcano which most altered human destiny was Sumatra’s Mount Toba. Its eruption, about 74,000 years ago, created more havoc than all the cataclysms of historical times combined. Core samples taken from the Greenland ice-sheet suggest the ash and dust it produced led to a prolonged volcanic winters worldwide, causing a bottleneck in human population growth.

American academics speculate that everyone on earth perished except for a few thousand survivors. This, they claim, might explain why today’s gene-pool has such little diversity. But was the disaster a blessing in disguise? Perhaps only the brightest and best managed to make it through. Did Toba, in an instantaneous act of natural selection, spark the development of modern humans?

Toba was what vulcanists call a ‘super-volcano’. Massive as its exertions were, they would have been modest compared to those of a giant which erupted in North America two million years ago, creating one of today’s great natural wonders, Yellowstone. The park’s geysers, hot springs and bubbling mud pools, hint at its volcanic history. But, for decades, nobody could find any trace of a caldera, the basinlike depression resulting from the collapse of the centre of a volcano.

The puzzle was solved by the advent of aerial photography. Piecing together a sequence of high-altitude photographs, scientists of the US Geological Survey noticed the outline of a crater. It enclosed the entire Yellowstone area. The caldera has a diameter of 60km. The world’s most famous national park sits on a ‘hotspot’, a massive reservoir of superheated magma more than 70km in diameter.

There’s a geological mystery here; Yellowstone’s is the only super-volcano located on land. All other volcanic monsters, including those of Hawaii and the Galapagos, erupt beneath the sea. Iceland, too, is the product of a submarine giant.

The west of Iceland is American, the east is European. The centre is stationary which implies that Greenwich is not a good place from which to measure longitude; the 0° line at the famous observatory isn’t fixed but moving steadily, with the rest of Europe, eastwards. Shouldn’t longitude be measured from a stationary point?

Thingvellir, the site of Iceland’s ancient outdoor parliament doesn’t move; surely it’s the obvious choice for centre of the world.

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