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Mortality in England during the 1783–4 Laki Craters eruption


1783/4 has been recognised as a mortality “crisis year” in the population history of England. This demographic incident coincides with the Laki Craters eruption, Iceland, which began in June 1783 and fumigated many parts of Europe with volcanic gases and particles. Many reports and proxy climate records implicate the volcanic cloud in meteorological anomalies, including notably hot 1783 summer conditions in England and a severe subsequent winter. We present here a detailed analysis of the geographical and temporal trends in English mortality data, and interpret them in the light of the climatological records and observations of the pollutant cloud. We show that there were two distinct crisis periods: in August-September 1783, and January-February 1784, which together accounted for ~20,000 extra deaths. In both cases, the East of England was the worst affected region. Possible causes for the two crisis periods are considered and we conclude that the timing and magnitude of the winter mortality peak can be explained by the severe cold of January 1784. The late summer mortality followed 1–2 months after the very hot July of 1783 and may also have been related to the weather, with the time lag reflecting the relatively slow spread of enteric disease or the contraction of malaria. However, it is hard to explain the entire late summer anomaly by these high temperature causes. We therefore consider that fine acid aerosol and/or gases in the volcanic haze may also have contributed to the unusual August-September mortality. Given that complex radiative and dynamical effects of the volcanic cloud are implicated in the climatic anomalies in 1783–4, it is likely that the Laki Craters eruption did play a role in the English mortality crises of the same period.

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This manuscript has benefited from discussion with Richard Smith and Robert Haining. We thank Peter Baxter and John Grattan for incisive reviews of the manuscript, and Anna Hansell for additional comments and suggestions that were of great help in its revision. CW gratefully acknowledges support from the UK NERC (award number NER/S/A/2001/06108).

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Correspondence to C. S. Witham.

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Witham, C.S., Oppenheimer, C. Mortality in England during the 1783–4 Laki Craters eruption. Bull Volcanol 67, 15–26 (2004).

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  • Laki
  • England
  • Mortality
  • Health effects
  • Aerosols
  • Temperature change
  • Volcanic hazard