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Page last updated at 12:41 GMT, Monday, 19 April 2010 13:41 UK
Gilbert White records 1783 Iceland volcano ash cloud

Matt Treacy
BBC Hampshire & Isle of Wight

Gilbert White
Gilbert White recorded changes in the natural world in the late 18th century

The airspace closure caused by volcanic ash is not the first time an Icelandic eruption has affected Britain.

The worst such incident was recorded by an English country clergyman from his home in Hampshire in 1783.

Observations made by Gilbert White from his home at Selborne near Alton provided some key evidence of the effect of a volcano called Laki in the south of Iceland.

Gilbert White recorded a noticeable change in the climate as the sun went 'blood-coloured'.

More than 20,000 people died across the country, making it the greatest natural disaster in modern British history.

Icelandic eruption

… the heat was so intense that butchers' meat could hardly be eaten on the day it was killed.
Gilbert White, 1783

On 8 June 1783 Laki spewed boiling lava into the Icelandic countryside and belched more toxic gases than any eruption in the last 150 years. The effects were felt all over the Northern Hemisphere.

The eruption pumped out so much sulphur gas that it created a huge cloud of sulphuric acid droplets which began to drift over Europe.

The cloud first reached Britain on the 22 June 1783.

Gilbert White wrote to his friend, and Fellow of the Royal Society, Daines Barrington.

He described the ash cloud: "The peculiar haze or smoky fog that prevailed in this island and even beyond its limits was a most extraordinary appearance, unlike anything known within the memory of man."

Iceland eruption
The 2010 eruption has caused travel disruption across Europe

He also said that the ash had a spectacular effect on the daylight: "The sun, at noon, looked as blank as a clouded moon, and shed a rusted-coloured ferruginous light on the ground, and floors of rooms; but was particularly lurid and blood-coloured at rising and setting."

He also seemed to indicate that the ash affected the temperature in Hampshire: "… the heat was so intense that butchers' meat could hardly be eaten on the day it was killed."

The UK Health Protection Agency has said that the cloud of ash from this 2010 volcanic eruption is not a significant public health risk.

Today, in the grounds of Gilbert White's Selborne home, there is no visible sign of the latest cloud of ash.

However, his record of the 'killer cloud' 227 years ago remains one of the key pieces of evidence shaping modern scientific studies of volcanic eruptions.

Pioneering scientist

Gilbert White's House
Gilbert White lived in Selborne near Alton

The home of Gilbert White still nestles in the Hampshire countryside and is now a museum dedicated to one of the pioneers of natural history.

Born in 1720, he lived in the village for most of his life, recording many of the changes in the natural world he noticed around him.

Museum manager Carey Hides said he kept meticulous records.

She explained: "He adored his garden and he gradually started to record what went on around him. It started off like a gardening diary… and then gradually it expanded until he was recording everything - the flora, the fauna, and the weather throughout his life."

These observations changed the way scientists looked at the natural world.

His book, The Natural History of Selborne, published in 1787 is a deceptively simple account of wildlife through the seasons.

It has remained in print to this day and was, until the advent of Harry Potter, the fourth most published book in English language.

When a killer cloud hit Britain
19 Jan 07 |  Science & Environment



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