Monday, April 19, 2010


If you had a flight planned to or from Europe in the past few days, chances are you've heard about the volcanic eruption in Iceland. Mt. Eyjafjallajokull, a/k/a #@$%&*!@, which hadn't erupted since 1823 suddenly woke up. Potentially a bigger problem in the near future is Mt. Katla, 15 miles away, which, historically, has erupted shortly after every time Eyjafjallajokull has erupted because they both draw from the same pool of magma. The 1823 eruption wasn't a big issue for air travel except for the occasional balloon or two. Delayed or cancelled flights because of natural events like hurricanes, snowstorms, and the like are not unusual. But those normally go away in a day or so.

Volcanic eruptions are different--they can last for months or even years. The airborne ash clogs up the aircraft's jet engines, shutting them off. What's worse is that the ash is invisible to the pilots until it's too late. Recent years have seen several instances of airplanes flying through volcanic ash and diving thousands of feet until the pilots could get the engines re-started. Fortunately none have crashed. Interestingly, propeller planes can fly through the ash without harm. Currently in Europe there is a huge rush by corporate executives to rent small prop planes to get back to work.

The fallout from the eruption, other than the obvious (corrosive ash falling from the sky causing acid rain) is the economic impact. Airlines are losing $200 million per day while this is going on. Import and export goods are sitting on the tarmac, unable to get to market. President Obama couldn't physically get to Poland to attend the state funeral of the Polish president and other government officials. In his place, he sent the U.S. ambassador, but he didn't have to fly; he was already there.

Ironically, the eruption hasn't had that much effect in Iceland itself which is fortunate because the country is nearly bankrupt. The volcano is situated at the south end of the country, and the prevailing winds blow the ash away from Iceland. In the immediate vicinity, farmers are taking steps to protect their animal herds from ingesting the ash. The ash contains fluorides which bind to calcium in the animals' bloodstreams which causes bones to become brittle and teeth to fall out. North of the volcano, flash floods have occurred because glacial ice has melted.

Aside from air travel and commerce, the sticky part is the climatic effects of a major eruption. The eruption releases sulfates into the atmosphere which reflect sunlight back into space. You may recall Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted in 1991, which caused the world temperature to drop more than 1/2 degree Celsius in 1992and 1993. That may not sound like much, but it caused an extremely cool summer in much of the U.S., not to mention a severe winter. Incidentally, during the last Ice Age, the world temperature was 5 degrees Celsius colder than it is now. At least in 1991, the Northern tier of the U.S. didn't have snow like it did in 1816 (courtesy of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia). See KENSUSKINREPORT, 8/26/07. With a short growing season, we'd be looking at crop failures throughout the world.

In my 2007 article entitled 1816--THE YEAR WITHOUT A SUMMER:

In Europe, the weather was just as bad. The authors Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary, along with John William Polidori went on vacation to Lord Byron's house on the banks of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The weather was cold and rainy, and the trio could not enjoy their holiday. So they decided to have a contest to see who could write the scariest story. Although she didn't live long enough to cash in on the movie rights, Mary Shelley won the contest with her work, now called Frankenstein. Polidori wrote the novel, The Vampire, which was the inspiration for Bram Stoker's later novel Dracula.

Although my spell check is going crazy, Eyjafjallajokull is fast becoming a household word, even if we don't know how to pronounce it. Under the new rules for Scrabble which now allow proper names, you can impress your partner with the name of the volcano, until you run out of J's. But we'd better hope it stops before we get to that point.