Monday, April 19, 2010

Making An Ash Of Ourselves

There's a Ludditic element to this whole problem of the volcanic ash spewing from Eyjafjallajökull on Iceland: that God or nature or random chance could so cripple the movement of people across and to and from an entire continent is somewhat poetic. Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans.
It's estimated that the volcano has cost New York City $250 million in lost tourism alone. That's in less than one week. Worldwide, 63,000 flights have been cancelled, meaning something on the order of 1 million people have been forced to either sit and wait or make very roundabout travel arrangements. The British navy is being pressed into action to shuttle people across the Channel from the mainland, where some airports remain unaffected for now. The crippled tourism industry into Europe has Greece nervously pacing the floor.
I'm a bit surprised that there wasn't a better backup plan in place earlier on. After all, Iceland is responsible for 1/3 of the lava flow on the earth's surface over the past five hundred years, and Iceland has in recent years shown more and more seismic activity and instability. And Iceland is near routes from the New World to most major northern European cities.
And Eyjafjallajökull wasn't even considered the main problem on Iceland. That honor belongs to Upptyppingar, which is farther north and much bigger. However, Eyjafjallajökull in the past has been a bellwether, a precursor eruption to at least three bigger eruptions, the last in 1823, of the subglacial volcano, Katla.
In other words, to periphrase Donald Rumsfeld, this was an unknown problem we knew about.
The moment the April 14th eruption was confirmed, there should have been plans put into effect to bring European travellers home safely and quickly. Cruise ships could have been commandeered-- it's early in the North Atlantic season anyway-- safe harbor airports could have been identified and re-direction of flights initiated (air traffic controllers could have been shifted around: remember, all pilots and ATCs are required to be fluent in English, so it's a matter of logistics, not translation), and a joint private-public effort could have been kicked into gear to try to find housing for the temporarily displaced.
Of course, the airlines are already playing the "CYA" game, claiming that it's Europe's fault.
Based on previous experience with Iceland's volcanoes, this cloud of ash is likely to spew for months, and some of it has already drifted over Canadian airspace. It's going to be a horrible summer for Europe if that holds true.