Posted by: mattburleigh | April 17, 2010

Thoughts on volcanic disruption

Thoughts about Icelandic Volcanoes:

In 1783 there was a tremendous volcanic eruption on Iceland, from the Laki volcano. 25% of Iceland’s population died from starvation after the crops failed, an event deeply implanted in the Icelandic psychy. Across Northern Europe there was widespread smog, falling ash and poisonous gases that blocked out the Sun, caused crop failures, and basically killed people, especially those with existing respiratory and other health problems. The hottest summer in more than a generation didn’t help, and the particulates and sulphurous gases emitted into the atmosphere then caused the coldest northern hemisphere winter in a generation or more. Much of this is well documented by contemporary diarists, including the legendary Benjamin Franklin in the north-east United States. The humanitarian and economic disaster probably helped cause the French revolution later in the decade (1789). It’s a largely forgotten disaster (not in Iceland) that had massive effects on the UK.

Here are some articles talking about it:

BBC history article from 2007
“Mortality in England during the 1783–4 Laki Craters eruption”
Impact of Laki 1783 on village of Langham in Rutland

I don’t wish to frighten anyone, but things now could get a lot worse. The current eruption is a fraction the size of Laki, or Tambura in 1816. But the last time this current volcano erupted is the 1820s, and then it lasted for two years. At a minimum, we should expect this eruption to do the same, and that means disruption to air travel off and on for that period. Remember, this is the first major eruption in the northern and western hemispheres on the era of mass air travel, The authorities are doing the right thing: the stories of the BA and KLM jumbos flying through ash clouds in the 1990s in Indonesia and Alaska and losing all engines are warning enough. The media, by the way, are being excellent on this. All I’d say to them, is please keep an eye on the travel insurance companies and make sure they pay up and don’t hide behind Act of God nonsense. There are a lot of stranded passengers and all of them accept the right thing is being done. But we pay insurance for a reason and if you have to pay up, well tough luck for once. So premiums go up the next year: well that’s capitalism and it works both ways my good City friends.

On a personal level I’m still concerned about getting home Monday. I’d actually put it at less than 50% chance. And if I have to cancel, I go to the back of the queue and may be stuck for several more days. But I’m OK: I miss my girlfriend terribly but at least I have a job where I can get on with work over the internet, and I don’t have a young family to care for. I feel sorry for many others who are desperate to get home, or missing weddings, etc.

But my point is this: history tells us that Icelandic volcanoes can undergo massive eruptions every few hundreds years, and smaller ones in between. The smaller ones (probably what we are experiencing) are enough to ground modern transport for days or maybe weeks. Even if this cloud clears away as the wind changes to more normal directions, there will likely be similar disruption in the near future because this volcano will rumble on for a year or two like it did in the 1820s. But if this turns into a major event like Laki 1783, how will the modern economy and society cope?

Miranda has been talking to her Icelandair colleagues and their fear is that a neighbouring volcano, Katla, could blow. Historically, these two have always gone together:

Yahoo: Iceland’s eruptions could have global consequences .

Our climate is not stable. Stuff happens. A big storm, a hot summer, or a cold winter is not caused by man-made global warming, but the long-term warming trend might be. Humans don’t live on a planet that is stable even during their tiny lifetimes. From a scientist’s point of view, and as the ancient proverb says, we live in interesting times.


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