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Iceland's revenge
Apr 22, 2010

A Financial Times article concluded  that the recent volcanic eruption in Iceland, spreading clouds of ash toward Britain and the Netherlands, grounding aircraft in Europe and cancelling flights from other continents, is Iceland’s revenge for its treatment by the two nations. Of course, it’s a great leap of imagination, but the comment does make for interesting copy.

Britain and Holland humiliated Iceland by demanding it repay  billions of dollars to the two European countries which paid compensation to investors who lost heavily in Icesave, an Internet bank— the interest rates were too attractive to investors, and in the end too good to be true — and its parent, Landsbanki. Under the weight of massive debt, the country’s three major banks — Gitnir, Kaupthing and Landisbanki — collapsed within the space of a week in October 2008, resulting in Iceland’s currency plummeting and massive job losses. 

The question of repaying about (US) $3.5 billion to Britain and (US) $1.8 billion to the Netherlands was put to Icelanders in a referendum, which was resoundingly rejected. Icelanders opposed to the repayment plan voted “no” to what they called bully tactics by Britain and the Netherlands.

A 2,500-page report said the three Icelandic banks got too big and too overwhelmed by excessive risk-taking (incompetence and corruption are also alleged). When the exposure of the banks became evident — another victim of the American mortgage meltdown — short-term funding couldn’t be found and loans from other financial institutions were called, so the Icelandic banks couldn’t repay existing debts and became insolvent. 

“Two years ago,” according to the April 15 Financial Times article, “Iceland’s banks blew up spectacularly, taking much of the world by surprise and leaving the British and Dutch governments angrily out of pocket. Now, the sparsely populated North Atlantic island has produced another big explosion — again affecting the two countries. This time, nature rather than the bankers, are to blame. A volcano, Eyafjallajokull, has erupted ... sending a plume of dust ... (11 kilometres) into the atmosphere ... A glance at the meteorlogical map would suggest that the volcano has contrived to avenge Iceland for the humiliation inflicted upon it by the British and Dutch over the banking failure.”

It’s fanciful speculation to use the volcano in another context, but the writer is merely using literary licence to explain the toll on airlines and European nations in the aftermath of a natural disaster arising from a humiliated country. 

For the record, Iceland cannot control its string of volcanoes, which result from the island being directly over a magna hot spot. The nation owes its existence to the ripping apart of the North American and European continental shelves which effectively splits the island in two — one part is heading west, while the other is heading east. The eruption of magna over millions of years built up until Iceland emerged as a land mass in the middle of the North Atlantic.

Historically, eruptions of volcanoes has caused periodic disasters, but the series of setbacks have also been a boon to other countries, not the least of which has been Canada.

The Manitoba Free Press reprinted a story on August 14, 1875, from the Icelandic weekly paper Nordanfari, telling of earthquakes occurring frequently during Christmas and New Year in the eastern portion of the island. And then, “early in the morning of the 29th March, a great noise was heard like the rolling of distant thunder in the west ... About 9 a.m. particles of whitish grey pumice began to rain down from the sky (from Mount Askja).” 

It would have seemed to the Icelanders that the old Norse gods had been reawakened, and that Thor was once again striking mighty blows with his magical hammer, creating lightning (common during volcanic eruptions) that made “deafening reports of artillery across the sky.”

Molten lava also flowed from fissures in the Lake Myvatn Wastes. During the dark hue of evening, it looked like one enormous glowing inferno, although the lava was actually spewing from 40 individual rips in the earth’s surface. Other fissures opened up in the Odathahraun Wastes to the south of Myvatn. But the most spectacular volcanic display occurred when Mount Askja erupted for a second time on Easter Monday. 

By July 1, The Times of London was reporting the presence of famine brought on by the volcanic eruption, which was “in character and extent almost identical to an eruption that had occurred two years earlier and killed 14,000 (out of a population of 150,000) people (this eruption convinced the first Icelanders to come to North America)...

Eirik Magnusson, the author of The Times article, an Icelander working at University College, Cambridge, England, said he received letters from home that said thousands of square kilometres of pasture had been destroyed and sheep, cattle and horses — the mainstay of the agriculture-based economy — were starving.

The Manitoba Free Press wrote after the widespread eruptions that: “Every humane feeling and every hearty sympathy should be aroused among us, to assist to remove speedily from their now overcrowded island, and a hearty welcome should be extended to them to settle among us and help to occupy our vast but now useless territory.”

Because of their hardships in Ontario, the Icelanders petitioned the Canadian government for a better location for a settlement. At first Ottawa paid little attention, but Canadian Governor General Lord Dufferin, who had earlier been to Iceland, intervened and convinced the Canadian government they would make good settlers in a “New Iceland.” The first group of settlers arrived in 1875 and subsequent years, and their descendants in Manitoba now number approximately 80,000.

Following the financial crisis of 2008, the Manitoba government made overtones to islanders to again opt for Manitoba, resulting in a few dozen arriving. Whether the recent eruption also enhances immigration from the island is still a matter of speculation.

If eruptions are Iceland’s revenge against Britain and the Netherlands, it’s a rather drastic step, but that’s the stuff of mythology and literary licence.