Island on Fire (Hardcover)

The Extraordinary Story of a Forgotten Volcano That Changed the World

By Alexandra Witze, Jeff Kanipe

Pegasus Books, 9781605986746, 224pp.

Publication Date: January 15, 2015

Other Editions of This Title:
Paperback (2/1/2016)
Compact Disc (6/4/2019)
Compact Disc (6/4/2019)
MP3 CD (6/4/2019)

List Price: 26.95*
* Individual store prices may vary.


Can a single explosion change the course of history? An eruption at the end of the 18th century led to years of climate change while igniting famine, disease, even perhaps revolution. Laki is one of Iceland’s most fearsome volcanoes.

Laki is Iceland’s largest volcano. Its eruption in 1783 is one of history’s great, untold natural disasters. Spewing out sun-blocking ash and then a poisonous fog for eight long months, the effects of the eruption lingered across the world for years.  It caused the deaths of people as far away as the Nile and created catastrophic conditions throughout Europe.

Island on Fire is the story not only of a single eruption but the people whose lives it changed, the dawn of modern volcanology, as well as the history—and potential—of other super-volcanoes like Laki around the world. And perhaps most pertinently, in the wake of the eruption of another Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, which closed European air space in 2010, acclaimed science writers Witze and Kanipe look at what might transpire should Laki erupt again in our lifetime.

About the Author

Alexandra Witze is an award-winning science journalist and correspondent for the journal Nature. Her reporting has taken her from the North Pole (to report on climate change) to the jungles of Guatemala (to cover Maya archaeology) to China's quake-ravaged Sichuan province. Island on Fire is her first book and she lives in Boulder, CO.

Jeff Kanipe is an experienced science writer and the author of a number of books on astronomy including Chasing Hubble’s Shadows (Hill & Wang, 2006) and The Cosmic Connection (Prometheus, 2008). He has an asteroid (84447 Jeffkanipe) named after him.

Praise For Island on Fire: The Extraordinary Story of a Forgotten Volcano That Changed the World

A volcanic tour de force: terrific story-telling that reveals our vulnerability to nature's most destructive forces.
— Nick Crane, the BBC

This book, written for a nontechnical audience, does a very good job of describing the Laki eruption and its aftermath, relying heavily on historic firsthand observations. The endnotes will guide interested readers to the more technical literature on the subject.

it just a story of one volcano, that would be engrossing enough: by including
assessments and natural histories of others, this wide-ranging book holds the
potential to appeal to a wide audience.

A revealing new volume. Chapters on geology and the short- and long-term effects of volcanic eruptions add depth to Witze and Kanipe’s discussion, rounding out a work that serves as a valuable reminder of just how much we remain at Mother Nature’s mercy.

Deftly interweaving information compiled by naturalists and astronomers of the day (and even Benjamin Franklin, who was in Paris during the eruption) with interviews with modern-day, scientists and historians, the authors provide a captivating overview of the eruption.

Witze and Kanipe have written a compelling and engrossing story of Laki and its worldwide impact. As the best book authors do, they have also ferreted out facts and examples that make their specific story one with implications for modern readers. It is a book that will surely make you want to go to Iceland, or at least pay careful heed to the next time one if its many volcanoes erupt.

A terrific, disturbing book. In their fast-paced, enjoyable text the authors show how vulnerable we remain to the most unpredictable of natural disasters.
— Gillian Darley, author of VESUVIUS

A story for the ages. But beneath the barrage of devastation lies an even more profound story: why do we forget these dangers?
— Dr. Lindy Elkins-Tanton, Carnegie Institution for Science


For those with an interest in history and/or geology.

In 1783 the Icelandic volcano Laki erupted, with catastrophic consequences. The ash it pumped into the atmosphere blanketed of the Northern Hemisphere in a sun-blocking fog, causing one of the most severe winters for hundreds of years. Many across Europe froze to death, and crops withered, leading to mass famine. In Africa, the monsoons failed to come, and the Nile dud not flood as usual, causing one sixth of Egypt's population to starve or leave the country. The official death tally in Iceland from Laki was around 9,000, but some experts suggest the global toll was much higher. Journalists Witze and Kanipe tell the scientific and human story of Laki and predict that because a Laki-scale eruption happens on average every 200 to 500 years in Iceland, a similar event is not unlikely.