Mother Nature gives Globalized Man a volcanic spanking

Once upon a time, people were tossed into the mouths of active volcanoes in order to appease the wrath of the gods. Today, we throw scientists at volcanoes in order to appease the wrath of the people.

Before the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano on April 14, the only thing that seemed capable of silencing the skies above Europe was a pilot strike courtesy of Air France. No more. Suddenly, Globalized Man’s carefree, jet-setting lifestyle has been landlocked not by an idle act of man (which might be somehow less embarrassing), but rather by one of those medieval-type “acts of God,” a maddening whim of nature that science and technology should have categorized and purged from our modern lives years ago.

After all, it’s not like this is the first volcano to blow its top since the air travel industry began whisking millions of anxious passengers around the planet every single day, right? Why has our super-advanced technology not kept pace with the volcanoes? Now, alas, a power lunch in Paris followed by a delicate dinner in London is no longer a luxury that may be casually taken for granted. Thank you, Iceland.

Perhaps the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull volcano is God’s warning to believers everywhere to repent on their wasteful ways before he agrees to open up the VIP lounges once again? Yes, there is something comforting in biblical cause-and-effect to explain such earth-shaking events.

In many ways, the whiney question “is it safe to fly yet” resembles the ongoing and very annoying debate on global warming: on one side of the aisle is the absolutely, positively certain group that says we are over-dramatizing the effects of volcanic ash on man-made commercial aircraft. These people generally place tremendous faith in Science and Technology, scoff at any sort of government intervention, and tend to be more fatalistic in their approach to mechanical things, not to mention the natural world as a whole. They are also reportedly 92.5 percent more likely to own the just-released iPad.

Then there is the other equally cocksure side of the debate, the so-called apocalyptic doomsayers, who support the theory – despite the fact that they have never attended a single aeronautical engineering lecture – that volcanic ash definitely presents a very real danger to the internal workings of an aircraft engine. This slightly superstitious lot, which tends to be far less suspicious of government tinkering to resolve society’s gravest problems, will probably be twisting rosary beads onto the next available flight, or chanting long, cryptic passages from the Torah.

Our volcanic world

On average, about 15 major volcanic eruptions occur annually. Ash clouds that reach above 25,000 ft. can travel hundreds of miles. When Mt. St. Helens erupted in 1980, the ash cloud reached an altitude of some 90,000 ft. in 30 minutes and was about 50 miles wide. In 15 hours, the plume had traveled 600 miles; after 2 weeks, ash had circled the entire earth. Most volcanic ash clouds usually appear away from the most crowded airspaces. This week's eruption in Iceland blew debris across Northern Europe, threatening most routes from the US East Coast to Europe.

Somewhere in the middle of this spring madness lays the truth. Meanwhile, stranded passengers, plummeting profits and increasingly vilified politicians are fueling the debate as the sense of desperation continues to grow.

“Thousands of travelers are facing continuing misery after the suspension of flights in and out of the UK was extended until at least 13:00 tomorrow as the cloud of volcanic ash from Iceland spreads across Europe,” wailed the Guardian, in an attempt to “share the misery,” apparently, with their stranded readership. “The European air navigation safety agency, Eurocontrol, said only some 5,000 flights would take place in Europe today compared to 22,000 in normal circumstances. A spokesman said the situation was not expected to change tomorrow.”

Yes, a difficult situation, but is it really accurate to call the shutdown of continental airspace a “misery” for the tens of thousands of commuters who must now spend an additional four-to-five days on European vacation with their families? Perhaps there is a good counter argument in there somewhere, but nevertheless, spending an unexpected extra week of vacation with the family or loved one sure beats sitting in an office “back home” any day.

Has the human race really become so spoiled with “comfort and convenience” that even when a gift from the heavens falls smack into our laps in the form of volcanic ash our only response is to retreat into a knee-jerk complaint mode? Perhaps we forget how far we have evolved in terms of our "necessities" (not so long ago, mere luxuries) in such a short period of time.

Just one century ago, a transatlantic trip was an arduous adventure, not a frivolous flight, which oftentimes resulted in the death of a number of passengers. In those days, with passengers crowded into stifling galleys for days on end, it was not uncommon for many people to fall victim to scurvy, typhus or typhoon before making it anywhere near the distant harbor. And let’s not even think about the food and entertainment options. Yet we continue to incriminate the very same airlines that are taking extra precautions in the light of very serious risks.

Why is it that the degradation of the human spirit (in the non-religious sense of that word) increases in direct proportion to the introduction of every new material comfort or mechanical contraption?

Giovanni Bisignani, director-general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the airlines' trade union was fuming over Europe’s sluggish response to the volcanic ash cloud that has paralyzed air travel across the continent.

“This is a European embarrassment and it's a European mess,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today program. “It took five days to organize a conference call with the ministers of transport. Europeans are still using a system that's based on a theoretical model, instead of taking a decision based on facts and risk assessment.”

Perhaps it escaped Mr. Bisignani’s attention that many politicians and airline executives are actually basing their decisions on historical “facts and risk assessment.”

In 1989, for example, all four engines of a Boeing 747 35,000 feet over Alaska decided to take a coffee break at the very same time that the aircraft was flying – yes, you guessed it – into a cloud of volcanic ash. After several eerily quiet minutes, the crew was able to restart three of the four engines and land safely, but it was a lesson nobody on that flight quickly forgot.

A big part of the rush to get the airplanes back into the air is that the lockdown is costing airlines around $200 million a day in lost revenues. But since everybody is powerless in the face of this act of God, the best the politicians can do is call for a government commission, bureaucratic man's equivalent of the ancient rain dance – a futile gesture that makes it look like somebody somewhere is doing something.

On Monday, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso ordered formation of a group to study the impact of the volcanic ash cloud on the European economy and the air travel industry.

I wonder if the politicians will monitor the health benefits of extended vacations for hundreds of thousands of people and their families? Somehow I really doubt it. That could be too dangerous.

Robert Bridge, RT

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