There are half a million sheep in Iceland, a nation whose human population is less than 330,000. Icelandic sheep are an important part of the island’s history, economy and cuisine. So when sheep began to die mysteriously across the country this spring, farmers were concerned. When the number of deaths approached the thousands, they became alarmed and even ashamed because they had no idea what the cause might be or how to stop it. Could it be the result of the volcanic eruption in Holuhraun which began on August 29, 2014, and has only recently abated? Is this the start of another Icelandic famine like the history-altering “Móðuharðindin” (Mist Hardships) caused by the Laki eruption in 1783?
Farmers and veterinarians began seeing sickly sheep in January 2015. Despite modifications to feed and medications, by spring the animals were weakened and ewes died giving birth, causing a shortage of healthy lambs. The mass deaths continued and could no longer be blamed on bad hay or communicable diseases. Veterinarians now think the deaths are the result of the Holuhraun eruption and fear another disaster like Móðuharðindin.
While the June 8, 1783, eruption of the Lakagigar volcano was large, the real damage was caused by the fumes it spewed for eight months. Those gases contained an estimated 8 million tons of hydrogen fluoride and 120 million tons of sulfur dioxide and spread a “Laki haze” across Europe. The gases killed 75% of the livestock in Iceland and the subsequent famine killed 20% of its human population. It so greatly affected harvests in Europe that it is seen as one of the causes of the French revolution.
Unfortunately, Holuhraun also emitted millions of tons of fumes with high levels of sulfur-dioxide until finally stopping in March 2015. Are the sheep in Iceland and the crops there and across Europe going to suffer from a Holuhraun haze and another Móðuharðindin? Only time will tell.
Humans didn’t cause these eruptions (although we’re causing others) but humans live, farm and raise animals in harm’s way. Are the mass deaths of Icelandic sheep a warning? Will we ever learn?