Sunday, April 25, 2010

Mighty Powers

Like many Europeans, I never saw this week's travel crisis coming. I was totally unaware that a volcano in Iceland could disrupt my daily life in France and have serious economic consequences for our entire continent. Sure nobody died and it was much less dramatic than the earthquake in China or Katrina, but the very fact that our globalized world can be put at a standstill is unexpected, and there is an eerie sense that things could easily go wrong again, or get worse, and for longer.

In a typical English style, this week's Economist found that "the idea that humans, for all their technological might, could be put in their place by this volcano—this obscure, unpronounceable, C-list volcano—was strangely satisfying, even thrilling.", referring to Edmund Burke's concept of "sublime" - something beyond hat possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation.

But they also believe in human resourcefulness, and think that "The apparently sublime power of the volcano was largely the result of an initially supine reaction." and that, had the eruption continued, our "interconnectedness would undoubtedly have provided ways to keep Europe supplied, though probably at substantial cost and with a fair bit of lasting disruption.".

I like their optimism, but I am not sure I share it.This may have been a little volcano and we may have been unprepared and may learn our lesson (or not!) but there is a bigger volcano nearby whose next eruption is, according to vulcanologist long overdue.
Katla is getting a lot of attention because past eruptions of Eyjafjallajokull seem to have acted as harbingers of eruptions by its larger neighbour. Although there is no geophysical evidence for a causal relationship, neighbouring volcanoes can share some plumbing, and only when that plumbing started gurgling into action would its existence become clear. Volcanologists disagree about the importance of this possible link, but they agree that Katla's next eruption is overdue—it last went off in 1918—and some suspect that its tardiness may translate into a particularly impressive show of strength.
Katla's eruptions can be 100 times larger than what is going on at Eyjafjallajokull. A big eruption, thought to be one of Katla's, left ash all across northern Europe about 10,300 years ago. When explosive volcanic eruptions in Iceland and elsewhere in the Arctic are large enough to insert significant long-lasting hazes into the upper atmosphere, they seem able to change weather patterns around the world. There is some evidence for their weakening the flow of the Nile and disrupting monsoons.
The eruption of Laki, an Icelandic volcanic fissure, in 1783 sent poisonous gases across Europe.
Another concern is that Iceland's volcanoes, especially those under its central ice cap—which, other things being equal, will produce more explosive plumes if they break through—seem to show a cycle in activity, perhaps due to the hotspot that feeds them. On this reading of the record, activity can be expected to increase for the next 40 years or so. The past few decades have been one of the quiet patches. It seems likely that the first 50 years of jet travel across the North Atlantic enjoyed particularly clear skies. (The Economist)
Yes, there are lessons to learn and the world will probably not end in 2012 in an impressive apocalyptic fashion. More likely, a bigger eruption could have massive economic consequences, an impact not only on air-travel and economic exchanges but also on agriculture which might result in lack of food, huge impoverishment possibly coupled with upheavals and social unrest.
Sure we would cope, adapt and eventually recover but there is only so much humans can do in face of such powerful powers and it sure wouldn't be fun and I would love to do without this sort of "sublime", thank you!

NOTE: I wonder if a movie will ever be made out of this scenario - something less dramatic, than the usual disaster movie, but more convincing, a sort of long painful span of suffering. Hard to encapsulate in a 2 hour drama, I imagine;

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