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The Laki eruption and strange weather phenomena in the German territories in the summer of 1783

  • German Maritime Museum - Leibniz Institute for Maritime History


My poster visualizes the results of the research I conducted in my master’s thesis about the impacts of an Icelandic volcanic eruption in 1783. The weather of 1783 was extraordinary even for a year situated within the Little Ice Age; the summer was characterized by strange weather phenomena: a dry fog persisting for two months, a sulphuric odour, heat, numerous thunderstorms, earthquakes, etc. The Laki fissure eruption started in June 1783 and lasted until February 1784. The eruption ejected ash and gas, which formed a fog that was carried south-eastward by the Jet stream, a fog which appeared above Europe in mid June 1783. The news of an Icelandic eruption, however, reached Europe in September – after the fog had already disappeared. The impacts of the Laki eruption upon Britain and France have been studied qualitatively and quantitatively, their influences on the German territories, however, have not yet been considered. My research deals with how media and science in the late Enlightenment shaped the contemporaries’ perception and interpretation of the unusual weather within the German territories during the summer of 1783. I applied methods of climate history and history of science by using four newspapers from different German cities from mid June to mid October, and seven scientific publications from 1783 and 1784 as sources. Contemporary descriptions and debates disclosed that religious and scientific explanations were completing each other, rather than excluding one another. The German debate in 1783 was still strongly influenced by physicotheology, a line of thought that tried to bring biblical tradition together with scientific knowledge. There was not one accepted interpretation of the fog’s origin but a plurality and simultaneity of religious and scientific theories. On the other hand newspapers and academic publications vehemently rejected superstition.
Did you know? In 1783 the Laki fissure erupted and released
122 megatons of sulphur dioxide, the biggest amount released by an eruption
in the entire Holocene. The gases formed a dry fog that covered the sky above
Europe from June to August 1783. The fog was special because it was dry
instead of wet, and lasted for two months.!
Laki is a 27 km long fissure volcano in Iceland. Iceland is one of the world’s
most active volcanic zones, due to its location on top of the Mid-Atlantic
Ridge and on a hotspot.!
The Laki eruption’s consequences upon Iceland, France and England have
been analysed by climatologists and geologists, but hardly any historians. Its
impacts upon the German territories have not been studied yet. Even for a
year situated within the Little Ice Age, 1783 was extraordinary.
Contemporaries perceived 1783 as L’année des merveilles with all its natural
spectacles. !
Methods & Materials
I applied methods of environmental history and the history of science
and knowledge. My research analysed how media and science in the late
Enlightenment shaped the contemporaries’ perception and interpretation
of the unusual weather within the German territories during the summer
of 1783. !
I used newspaper articles mentioning any kind of weather phenomena
from four newspapers from Hamburg, Berlin, and Munich from 08 June
to 16 October 1783 and seven scientific publications from 1783 and 1784
as my sources. The four newspapers together reached about half a
million readers per issue. The scientific publications reached a smaller
group. !
The Laki eruption and strange weather phenomena
in the German territories in the summer of 1783
Katrin Kleemann, M.A.
Freie Universität Berlin, Germany
Katrin Kleemann, Email:, Twitter: @katrinkleemann
List of figures:!
Fig. 1: „Lakagígar Este-East“ by Jesús Rodríguez Fernández,
jesusisland/9289939279, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 !
Fig. 2: Vasold, Manfred: Die Eruptionen des Laki von 1783/84. Ein Beitrag zur deutschen
Klimageschichte. In: Naturwissenschaftliche Rundschau 157, issue 11 (2004), p. 602. Graphic designer:
Ruth Hammelehle. German description translated into English by Katrin Kleemann.!
Fig. 3: Produced by Katrin Kleemann with!
Sources used: !
Berlinsche Nachrichten von Staats- und gelehrten Sachen, Berlin 1783.!
Königlich privilegirte Berlinische Staats- und gelehrte Zeitung, Berlin 1783.!
Münchner Zeitung (Münchner stats-, gelehrte, und vermischte Nachrichten aus Journalen, Zeitungen,
und Correspondenzen übersetzt, und gesammelt), München 1783.!
Staats- und Gelehrte Zeitung des Hamburgischen unpartheyischen Correspondenten, Hamburg 1783. !
Bardili, Christoph Gottfried: Ueber die Entstehung und Beschaffenheit des ausserordentlichen Nebels in
unsern Gegenden. Leipzig 1783. !
Beroldingen, Franz Cölestin von: Gedanken über den so lange angehaltenen ungewöhnlichen Nebel.
Braunschweig 1783. !
Christ, Johann Ludwig: Von der außerordentlichen Witterung des Jahres 1783, in Ansehnung des
anhaltenden und heftigen Höherauchs [...]. Frankfurt am Main 1783. !
Fischer, Johann Nepomuk: Beweiß, daß das Glockenläuten bey Gewittern mehr schädlich als nützlich
sey. Nebst einer allgemeinen Untersuchung ächter und unächter Verwahrungsmittel gegen die Gewitter.
München 1784. !
Joost, Ulrich / Albrecht Schöne [Hrsg.]: Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. Briefwechsel. Band II
1780-1784. München 1985.!
Mercier, Louis-Sébastien: Mon bonnet de nuit. Bd. 2. Neuchâtel 1784.!
Schelhorn, Johann Georg: Unterhaltungen beym Donnerwetter, seinen werthesten Mitbürgern, und
dem lieben Landvolk seiner Vaterstadt besonders gewiedmet. Memmingen 1783.!
Wiedeburg, Johann Ernst Basilius: Über die Erdbeben und !
den allgemeinen Nebel 1783. Jena 1784. !
Link to a PDF
document with
the complete list
of references.
The following interpretations were to be found in my sample:!
Religious explanations:!
Fear of natural disasters and the powers behind it (God), and what it
may forebode.!
God sent heat and fog as a blessing for the harvest.!
Scientific explanations:!
Search for precedents (chronicles and elderly people): No harm came
from dry fogs in the past.!
Vapour of heavy rain and flooding caused the dry fog. !
Meteors hitting the Earth caused the fog. !
Burning of peat in the Northern German moorland caused the fog.!
Volcanism and earthquakes caused the sub-terrestrial odour to escape
the Earth’s interior through cracks and vents into the air and caused
the fog (“Subsurface Revolution”). !
Electricity caused the fog. !
Lightning rods deprived the air of its electricity, the air could not
clean itself anymore, thus it was foggy.!
The fog had a negative effect upon health and environment.!
The fog had a fertility-enhancing effect.!
!There was not one accepted interpretation of the summer’s weather
but many theories. Contemporaries could read contradicting
explanations in one and the same newspaper issue. Reassuring
explanations were predominant.!
The German debate in 1783 was strongly influenced by physicotheology,
a line of thought originating in England and France trying to bring
biblical tradition together with scientific knowledge. The late
Enlightenment was characterized by a plurality and simultaneity of
religious and scientific theories. !
Fig. 1. The 27 km long Laki fissure volcano in Iceland. The Vatnajökull ice
shield is visible in the background.
Fig. 2. Iceland‘s location and its geological features.
Fig. 3. List of weather phenomena occurring throughout the
summer of 1783.
The Laki fissure eruption is an example of a volcanic eruption having sociocultural impacts upon distant
regions. As the real cause of the dry fog was obscure, scientists developed theories to explain the unusual
phenomena. Newspapers spread those ideas. In 1783 the natural sciences were not evolved enough to
reliably identify the Laki eruption as the source of the dry fog. My source sample showed religious and
scientific explanations were not yet separated in 1783. A divine component remained necessary to explain
events that were hard to understand. It took until the mid-19th century for religious explanations to be
ousted from the scientific debate. !
My initial assumption that newspapers represented the popular discourse and scientific publications the
elite-educated discourse was disproven. The discourse depicted by the source sample was an educated one.
My sample only gave second-party characterisations about what the “common man” thought. Weather was
an integral part of an agrarian society’s livelihood in the 18th century. It is safe to assume the German
territories’ population noticed the summer’s unusual weather. Judging from the big number of weather-
related reports there was a need for explanation. It, however, remains unanswered which explanations the
readers accepted.!
Questions that remain unanswered: Which, if any, health or environmental implications did the sulphur
dioxide have upon the German territories in 1783? Why was the summer of 1783 so hot and the 1783-84
winter severely cold? Did El Niño-Southern Oscillation and the North Atlantic Oscillation influence the
weather in the eruptions aftermath? !
Due to Iceland’s location on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and on top of a hotspot it is beyond doubt Iceland will
be the home of future volcanic eruptions. An analysis of the impacts of the 1783 eruption onto continental
Europe is important to adequately prepare for a similar or bigger eruption. !
Further information
This research was originally conducted for my master‘s thesis at the Freie Universität Berlin 2014 with the
title: “‘Merkwürdige Nebel‘ Auswirkungen und Diskussionen der isländischen Lakagígar Eruption (1783) in
den deutschen Territorien“.!
... The Little Ice Age is conceptually constructed in comparison to the earlier medieval warming period 11 and defined as a general term for global cooling and the climate variable period. However, there are discussions about the static significance of such a defined temperature depression. ...
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