Black Sun, High Flame, and Flood: Volcanic hazards in Iceland

Andrew Dugmore, Orri Vesteinsson

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)

Abstract

Understanding Hazards, Mitigating Impacts, Avoiding Disasters: Summary statement for Policy Makers and the Disaster Management Community.

A long-term view of volcanic hazards in Iceland contains an important message
for policy makers: context is vital. Although combinations of major eruptions
and unlucky circumstances have contributed to nationwide calamities,
depression, and famine, we stress that it was not the size or type of volcanic
eruption alone that decided this result but rather the time of year the eruption
took place and the coincidence of other factors that in combination
could produce catastrophic shocks to the economic system. It is notable that
despite over 200 volcanic events in Iceland that could have led to a disaster,
few have killed people either directly or indirectly; when bad synergies
occur, however, death tolls can be great. Historical case studies suggest that
human suffering on a massive scale is not necessarily a measure of system
resilience (or failure): societies can absorb enormous and inhuman amounts
of pain and suffering without failing.
Potential impacts of volcanic eruptions are variable depending on environmental
and social contexts and are best viewed alongside other natural
hazards, from disease to extreme weather. Long recurrence times and their
varied nature have meant that prior to the twentieth century AD there was
little specific planning to cope with volcanic impacts. However, communal
resilience in Iceland that developed to face other environmental challenges,
such as extreme or unpredictable weather, has been the basis of an effective
response to volcanic hazards and the mitigation of their impacts. Self-reliance
was key and was based on flexible strategies of farming and wildlife
exploitation. Arguably, this flexibility came at the cost of economic development,
which at best was sluggish until the end of the nineteenth century.
Modifying or abandoning this ability to deal with setbacks in favor of economic
development did not seem like an acceptable strategy until modern
times. Serendipitously, the volcanic events that create hazards in Iceland have
also created environmental records that are a highly effective means of assessing
those hazards. Through a detailed, multidisciplinary study of the past, we
can both acquire an appreciation of the likely physical effects of future events
and assess how specific circumstances have led to economic cost and human
suffering—or not. The key to effective anticipation of an unknowable future
is to understand the importance of synergistic effects and how they might
occur depending upon context.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSurviving Sudden Environmental Change Answers from Archaeology
Subtitle of host publicationAnswers from Archaeology
EditorsJago Cooper, Payson Sheets
Place of PublicationBoulder, Colorado, USA
PublisherUniversity Press of Colorado
Pages67-90
Number of pages22
ISBN (Print)978-1-60732-167-5
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2012

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