Thar she blows…

Right now I should be heading off to the airport, I have a flight to London in an hour or so. But at 65 degrees north there sits a tiny country that has brought Europe to a standstill. With only 300,000 people, it’s an island of fish eaters. Its major rivalries in that league are Japan, and er… Portugal.

On October 9th 2008 Iceland became the world’s first developed nation to go bankrupt, betting on foreign mortgage markets, and ending up devoured by a beast that no one really understood. As humans have taken control of their world, the mythical giants of yesteryear, the raging Adam Astor who swallowed caravels whole as gatekeeper to the Cape of Storms, have vanished from our hearts and minds. We are now the masters of the universe, no longer a bunch of scared rodent-like creatures hiding in caves in fear of the great predators of the planet.

Just like the financial events of 2008, which economists were patently unable to predict, so the consequences of this latest eruption took business, markets, and the common citizen entirely by surprise. It’s worth reflecting on this with the hindsight of history. On Thursday morning, reports emerged that Newcastle, in the northeastern UK, had closed its airport due to ash from a volcano with the improbable name of Eyjafjallajokull. Shortly after, non-linearity took its course, and what had clearly seemed like a local hassle, linked to the dangers of particles of silica (glass) way up in the jetstream, became a major world event. The very next day, 16,000 flights were cancelled in Europe. Today promises at least as much mayhem.

NASA Satellite image of Eyjafjallajokull

At 100 bucks a ticket and 100 heads a flight, that’s 160 million dollars, 1% of Iceland’s GDP gone in one day. With most of Europe’s airspace closed, and all the major hubs down, it rams home at least three points.

First, that we are unable to predict major changes that severely disrupt our lives, and cause crises that trigger refugee-like patterns. The sort of thing that has you reaching for the remote when it comes on TV out of Africa or Asia. The volcano was clearly spewing out lava with gusto; we pride ourselves on modelling skills for prediction of weather, climate, and ocean circulation, yet our capacity to be proactive, link government with business and apply contigency planning to reroute, divert, advise, or contain was zilch. Ironically, my destination in the UK is a meeting featuring scientists from some of the world’s foremost met offices to help African colleagues learn the wonders of satellite remote sensing and modelling.

Second, just like the financial crisis, this natural event flew from local to global in a very short time. Right now it is seen as a problem in northern Europe, and even down in the PIGS (the pathetic nickname given by UK markets to southern Europe) we don’t really see it as our issue yet. Except for the Irish, who are unlucky enough to be one of the PIGS and are now also piggy in the middle for the volcanic ash. Well, Lennon sang about the luck of the Irish.

This is already a world issue with serious repercussions for world trade. Like it or not, Europe is one of the great trade hubs, so this eruption is affecting the other great blocks, in everything traded by air. Foremost are perishable goods, unlucky enough to be in transit right now and rotting on tarmacs and warehouses. Suddenly, time stands still.  How this event, if it lasts, gets factored into climate change models, melting of glaciers, and country contributions to atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions is for tomorrow’s jury to decide. Right now the volcano is busy melting the equally unpronounceable glacier under which it sits.

In  our superfast information age, where twitter is the gold standard and books are passé, everyone is expecting this to appear and disappear in the blink of a byte. Could be, but volcanoes don’t tweet. What’ll happen if this baby decides to go on a spree of multiple orgasms? We can be ready for major world disruption for some time. Around 130 years ago, Krakatoa blew up and caused a reduction in air temperature worldwide! And Mount Etna has been erupting (on and off) for half a million years.

So let your mind deal with old scales for a change, the planet doesn’t work at the video-byte scale. One good way is to relax and read a book. Jules Verne, the foremost scifi writer of the 19th century, wrote a couple of good ones. Journey to the Center of the Earth would be a nice start:

“Fancy a tall, spare man, of an iron constitution, and with a fair complexion which took off a good ten years from the fifty he must own to. His restless eyes were in incessant motion behind his full-sized spectacles. His long, thin nose was like a knife blade. Boys have been heard to remark that that organ was magnetised and attracted iron filings. But this was merely a mischievous report; it had no attraction except for snuff, which it seemed to draw to itself in great quantities.”

The final point is our reliance on one technology. Biodiversity is important because the plasticity of different species increases the overall chance of survival. Sickle-cell anemia, a debilitating energy-drain mutation of human red blood cells, expresses itself with success in Africa because carriers are immune to sleeping sickness, the evil spell of the tse tse fly. Jet engines are the gold standard, but right now  all we have is a pile of scrap metal sitting on aprons. Chancellor Angela Merkel flew into Lisbon yesterday from the States because German airspace is closed. Ain’t nobody here but us pigs.

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One Response to “Thar she blows…”

  1. lebougie Says:

    really really fantastic entry, one of my favourites so far!

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