Sobering Questions from the Island Mountain

Most media attention on the eruption of the volcano under Eyjafjallaj̦kull (or the island-mountain glacier in Icelandic) has understandably focused on how its ash plume plays havoc with modern air transport. The deeper lessons, including evidence of yet another extinct species, have hardly featured Рperhaps because they offer a highly unflattering image of our societies.

Volcanic ash and modern aircraft engines, either jet or turbo-propellor, do not mix well. The negative effects vary in function of the composition of the ash, which in turn depends on the nature of the eruption. Volcanic ash is less disastrous for piston-engined aircraft but such engines are now only used to power light aircraft.

In June 1982 a British Airways 747 en route to New Zealand lost power on all four engines when it unknowingly flew into the ash cloud from the eruption of Mount Galunggung in Indonesia. As the aircraft lost height it cleared the ash cloud and the crew were able to restart the engines and make an emergency landing at Jakarta.

The crew of a KLM 747 had a similar experience in December 1989 when they lost all four engines during the approach to Anchorage airport in Alaska when their plane flew through the plume from the Mount Redoubt eruption. Like their BA colleagues the KLM crew were able to restart the engines and land once they had cleared the plume. All four engines had to be subsequently replaced.

The aviation industry responded by setting up 9 regional Volcanic Ash Advisory Centres (VAAC) in 1991, including the London centre which covers European airspace.

The rest of the story clearly demonstrates the weaknesses of our normal human responses to potential threats which we see as being remote. Geographically remote as in things that might happen in far away places, or temporally remote as in things that might happen somewhere in the future.

We invested fairly meagre resources into either volcano monitoring or research into the composition and effects of different kinds of volcanic ash. This was compounded by almost zero expenditure on airborne monitoring systems. Computer models for ash cloud dispersion patterns were underdeveloped and have therefore been shown to be inaccurate.

Aircraft engine manufacturers were reluctant to elaborate standards as to what level of volcanic ash their products could withstand and the different regulatory authorities did not insist.

Then on 14 April last Eyjafjallaj̦kull seriously blew Рwith the painful consequences we are now all too familiar with. European airlines and air forces were obliged to risk damage to their planes and the possible loss of their crews by carrying out test flights with hastily installed air sampling equipment to determine the nature, density and scope of the ash plume.

It took a full month before a specially equipped twin piston-engined DA42M Guardian plane, from the small Austrian manufacturer Diamond, was ready to deploy to Iceland.

All this inadequate preparation left governments with little choice but to completely shut most of Europe’s air space for several days in April. The likelihood is that we will be playing air travel cat-and-mouse with Eyjafjallajökull and its ash plume for at least the rest of the 2010.

And things could get a lot worse…

There are 35 large active volcanoes in Iceland and some evidence that at least three of them Grimsvotn, Hekla and Askja – all larger than Eyjafjallajokull – may be moving towards eruption.

Dr. Gillian Foulger, professor of geophysics at Durham University, told the Sunday Times that “if we put a high quality seismograph and some global positioning equipment on each one we would often be able to tell in advance if an eruption was coming. The cost is tiny compared with the potential economic damage from an unexpected eruption.”

A similar plea comes from warmer climes, Guido Bertolaso, the head of the Italian civil protection agency, warned of his country’s volcanic concerns. He told Corriere della Sera that monitoring of Italy’s 13 submerged volcanoes in the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Sicilian Channel is just getting under way. His particular focus is on Mount Epomeo. “If I had to name the volcano in Italy that is most likely to erupt today, I wouldn’t say Vesuvius. I’d look at the island of Ischia. The last eruption of Mount Epomeo took place in the 14th century and in the intervening years, its cone has risen by 800 metres. The magma chamber is getting ready to blow”.

Mr. Bertolaso was also critical of how we had failed to prepare for the Eyjafjallajökull eruption. “The ash cloud-related cost to airlines…has been estimated at roughly €2.5 billion euros, which rises to three billion if you factor in the impact on tourism. If just one tenth of that sum, say €250 million, had been invested in a more advanced radar control system, the emergency could have been managed much more effectively.”

There are eerie echoes in all this of official responses to climate change issues. A paucity of resources, an absence of attention, a refusal to change our patterns, and the hope that the dramatic impacts will only manifest themselves someplace far away from where we live and work.

But that’s just one of the warnings Eyjafjallajökull has given us…

One of the most alarming realities the ash plume revealed was just how little spare capacity our other transport systems have.

Ferry services were quickly overwhelmed, particularly in terms of foot passengers. This was true on the Irish Sea routes, on the two Ireland-France routes, and indeed on services between England and the European mainland. True none of these services were operating their full Summer schedules, but their inelastic offer does not bode well for a world where air travel is bound to become more expensive as oil prices rise.

A somewhat similar picture emerged across Europe and in particular on mainline rail services. The patchy network of high speed services were quickly booked out days in advance. In countries like France, Spain, Germany and Italy where the investment priority is the development of high speed trains it quickly became clear that the older mainline services had been run down to the point where they too were incapable of meeting demand.

The story was more or less the same everywhere. In most cases there was plenty of track, but not enough locomotives, carriages, drivers or other staff. It mattered little whether the stranded passengers were Irish tourists on a weekend break to Barcelona or Belgian businessmen at a trade fair in Vienna, when they tried to find trains to replace the grounded planes, the rail companies simply did not have enough to even begin meeting the demand.

Then there were all those stories of those who could afford to hire cars and pay the exorbitant drop-off charges and others who clubbed together and Twittered to hire minibuses and coaches to get them to Calais or wherever.

Although the Barcelona-Paris express was fully booked for days, local trains were running across the border to places like Perpignan and Narbonne. French Regional TER services, although slightly disrupted by a strike, were basically running. You could catch regional trains from Narbonne to Toulouse, and thence to Bordeaux, Poitiers, Le Havre etc. But you would have had to have known that they were running, that they do not always appear on the SNCF website, but on regional TER ones.

Or you would have had to find one of the now almost extinct real travel agencies. Older readers will remember them, the ones with guide books and timetables, or at least the knowledge of which website they needed to consult. Low cost airlines, under-funded rail systems, and self-booking websites have almost eliminated travel agencies.

As fuel prices inevitably rise and investigations menace the network of hidden subsidies from regional airports which may be what’s keeping many low cost airlines in business, the question of just how us island-dwellers might, even partly, replace air travel becomes ever more acutely posed.

Just how much chaos and costs will we have to put up with before we begin to seriously examine the feasibility of a tunnel under the Irish Sea to offer high speed rail travel from Dublin to London in about 3 hours? Or to Paris in around five?

If that sounds far-fetched just ask yourself which of us had ever heard of Eyjafjallajökull before April14, 2010?

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2 Responses to Sobering Questions from the Island Mountain

  1. Anne says:

    And we still don’t know how to pronounce it.

    Many of those stranded could not find out about local trains, for example, because of lack of language skills. Hence the recourse to Twitter-based help. I have a feeling that travel from now on is going to get very interesting.

  2. denis says:

    Travel takes a huge amount of energy to facilitate—-the fuel is only part of it —–the energy to build the planes, ferries, airports, etc is also huge and some one should quantify it and inform us as to the gigantic carbon footprint this is responsible for.
    Why do so many people have to shuffle backwards and forwards anyway?, whats so wrong with enjoying life at home ?—-we have wonderful mountains, lakes and costal amenities that are underused.
    Uncertain travel schedules should spur us to consider our way of life, and try to be a little more eco-friendly.

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