Thursday, 22 April 2010

Another Icelandic explosion?

We have just seen more than 100,000 flights grounded across Europe and a beleaguered airline industry frantically trying to restore to itself the confidence of hundreds of thousands of hapless, stranded travellers. We have witnessed perishable fresh produce rotting away in warehouses in far flung locations such as in the Caribbean, South America and Africa, for want of transport to consumer markets in Europe. Businesses and schools have been disrupted, business meetings have been cancelled.

And all this because one relatively small volcano in Iceland erupted in icy conditions, causing huge volumes of ash to be produced, the ash cloud rising high into the atmosphere. The wind direction too by coincidence was such that it guaranteed that this ash cloud would drift across most of northern Europe. One week later, we are only now just starting to breathe a sigh of relief that this immense disruption has come to an end. But there is another fact that we must be aware of.

And the fact is this: A far bigger Icelandic volcano, Katla, is tipped to erupt in the following months, potentially causing much more severe and sustained disruption to industry and to society as a whole. Eyjafjallajokul erupted last week and records show that each time Eyjafjallajokul has erupted in the last 2,000 years - in the year 920, in 1612 and between 1821 and 1823, Katla has exploded within six months.

The ash from the Eyjafjallajokul eruption was sent to such high altitudes because the ice on top of the mountain melted as the volcano erupted and the mixture of cold melt water and lava caused explosions, which in turn shot the volcanic ash high up into the air. The ash cloud drifted far across Europe because of the high altitude to which the ash had been shot.

Katla however is ten times the size of Eyjafjallajokul, with a correspondingly larger ice field. Were Katla to erupt, there undoubtedly will be shot high into the atmosphere larger amounts of ash than we saw with Eyjafjallajokul, with even more serious disruption the likely outcome, if the winds were blowing in roughly the same direction as with the recent Eyjafjallajokul eruption.

"I certainly wouldn't be surprised if Katla erupted within the next year, but how much it affects Britain and northern Europe depends on what happens with the winds at the time," the volcanologist Bill McGuire told The Independent newspaper.

Bill McGuire is a professor of earth sciences at UCL and widely accepted as one of Britain's leading volcanologists, whose main interests include monitoring volcanoes and global geophysical events. He is a bona fide authority on the subject of volcanoes and his advice is for airlines to start from now to draw up contingency plans. However, it is obvious that not very much can be done if the airspace is taken over by a volcanic ash cloud. What perhaps businesses could consider is to stock up on supplies early on. And travellers could have a rethink about whether they really need to make that trip.

There are jokes being passed around that the volcanic ash is a hidden agenda by the Green movement to limit unnecessary flights. Some have even said that the ash cloud is Iceland's reprisal against Britain for demanding repayment from Iceland of the billions of pounds paid by the British government in compensation to customers of Iceland's failed banks...

No comments: