'Fallout from Icelandic disaster destroys world economy'

That hypothetical headline, which almost seemed possible in 2008, could yet lie in the future for reasons that have nothing to do with the financial crisis. An erupting volcano in Iceland has caused the total closure of UK airspace for three days so far, along with other European countries, which is apparently unprecedented since World War II. Here in London today the skies are blissfully clear - both of aircraft, clouds and any visible sign of volcanic dust. But things were dramatically worse in 1783, when an Icelandic volcanic eruption blanketed Europe in a ‘dry fog’ for months.

In 1783 the Laki volcano erupted ten times between June 8th and the end of October, and the prevailing weather conditions swept an ash cloud across the whole of Europe, reaching as far as Moscow and Baghdad. After a stifling summer in Europe, the dust had altered weather patterns enough to cause temperatures to plunge that winter and the following year, resulting in famines as far away as Egypt and Japan, where the cold destroyed the rice harvest and a million people died. In America, Charleston harbour froze over and ice floes were carried down the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico.

If these conditions were repeated again now, it is not an exaggeration to say that the present world economy would be destroyed. The million or two passengers delayed in the last three days are a pinprick compared to the events of 1783. This is a case where nature has already written a far more dramatic scenario than even the most daring scenario-writer would think plausible. To read more of the gruesome details and imagine the impact in today's world, see this article published by the Economist in 2007.