Of volcanoes, dry fog, and sun as sackcloth

By Elizabeth Prata

I was given a series of books to use in my third grade small reading group about the 1900 Galveston hurricane and a story about the Mt. St. Helens eruption in Washington state.

It got me thinking of what we call natural disasters but the Bible calls the earth's groaning. Nothing says fallen world more than the visible devastation of disasters of the hurricane, earthquake, storms, and volcanic kind.

The global chaos over the low-volume eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano in 2010 may have interesting parallels to both the past and the future. First, the past.

"Profound effects of eight-month eruption in 1783 caused chaos from US to Egypt, say experts"

"Just over 200 years ago an Icelandic volcano erupted with catastrophic consequences for weather, agriculture and transport across the northern hemisphere – and helped trigger the French revolution. The Laki volcanic fissure in southern Iceland erupted over an eight-month period from 8 June 1783 to February 1784, spewing lava and poisonous gases that devastated the island's agriculture, killing much of the livestock. It is estimated that perhaps a quarter of Iceland's population died through the ensuing famine. Then, as now, there were more wide-ranging impacts. In Norway, the Netherlands, the British Isles, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, in North America and even Egypt, the Laki eruption had its consequences, as the haze of dust and sulphur particles thrown up by the volcano was carried over much of the northern hemisphere. Ships moored up in many ports, effectively fogbound.

Crops were affected as the fall-out from the continuing eruption coincided with an abnormally hot summer. A clergyman, the Rev Sir John Cullum, wrote to the Royal Society that barley crops "became brown and withered … as did the leaves of the oats; the rye had the appearance of being mildewed". Dr John Murray said: "Volcanic eruptions can have significant effects on weather patterns for from two to four years, which in turn have social and economic consequences. We shouldn't discount their possible political impacts."

The eruption in Iceland that began March 21, 2010 began similarly to the one in 1783 that caused so much death and devastation. The initial eruption that had begun was only rated a 1 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index [VEI.] In comparison, Mt. St. Helens was a 4 and Mt. Pinatubo in 1997 was a 6 but the cumulative effect is equally disruptive worldwide than a more violent eruption, as the world discovered anew. Why? We are more interconnected today than ever before. The ash plume has accumulated in size and mass and height and is traveling east over Europe. It has halted Europe's air travel, medical evacuations, and army flights.

It has rained a large-scale release of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere that also poses a potential health risk. "The eruption was a single act of nature, but it stopped the world in countless ways." Drudge's headline for a while was "The day the earth stood still." Of course it should be noted that the volcanic eruption of Eyjafjallajokull was not an act of nature but an act of God.

The effects to health of the 1783 Iceland Laki eruption was discussed in a paper by John Grattan, of The University of Wales, Institute of Geography and Earth Sciences. Grattan wrote: "The environmental impact of this event appears to have been severe, with reports of an acid dry fog in many parts of Europe, and often of associated damage to vegetation. It is argued that the meteorological conditions that led to this event are precisely the same as those which are associated with modern-day air pollution episodes in European conurbations, and the potential addition of millions of tonnes of volcanic gaseous material to the air over already polluted cities poses a rare, but in health terms potentially major, risk." (Above, a sackcloth hairshirt) Sackcloth is a very coarse, rough fabric woven from flax or hemp.

More on the 'dry fog' in a moment.

As in 1783, the health risks from sulphur dioxide and silica fallout remains just as great as it was then. FoxNews reported yesterday, "Doctor: Volcanic Dust Cloud Increases Risk of Death" "The World Health Organization issued a warning to Europeans Friday to stay indoors as ash from Iceland's volcano starts settling. ... concern is growing about the potentially deadly health effects the ash could have on people living in the region. The enormous dust cloud, hovering 20,000 feet over much of northern Europe, may contain large amounts of silica, a natural component of rock that comes with these types of volcanic explosions. “Inhaling silica into your respiratory system can lead to a deadly, chronic lung disease called silicosis that can damage the lungs and heart,” Alvarez said. “It also increases the potential of developing lung cancer.”

The 1783 eruption was rated a 6 on the VEI and lasted 8 months. We are already seeing how even this low-intensity eruption has disrupted the world. How might the Icelandic volcano, or volcanoes like it, figure in prophecy?

In Revelation 6:12 we read, "And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood;".

The sentence is constructed in a way that seems causal. Earthquake occurs, and within the same sentence with no period, the sun turns sackcloth and the moon turns red. Can an earthquake cause this? Yes, if it sparks a volcano eruption.

(Left, Malgorzata Zurakowska's artistic rendition of Apocalypse, Sun as Sackcloth of Hair). Volcanic ash has the same effect on the sun as described in the Revelation verse. The Byzantine historian Procopius recorded of 536, in his report on the wars with the Vandals, "during this year a most dread portent took place. For the sun gave forth its light without brightness...and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear." The event is thought to have been caused by an extensive atmospheric dust veil, possibly resulting from a large volcanic eruption in the tropics.

Gilbert White recorded his perceptions of the volcanic event at Selborne: "The sun, at noon, looked as blank as a clouded moon, and shed a rust- coloured ferruginous light on the ground, and floors of rooms; but was particularly lurid and blood-coloured at rising and setting." Others have variously called the dry fog effect on the sun as of a heavy veil, a mist, and as sackcloth. The supremely vivid sunsets also have their effect on the moon, which turns to red.

The Revelation verse states that there will be a massive earthquake, and it is not unlikely that such an earthquake may trigger a volcanic eruption that in turn spews enough ash into the stratosphere that will cause the sun to turn to sackcloth and the moon to turn to red.

What a day that will be.