Sunday, April 18, 2010

Above Us Only Sky

When I was at primary school in Gloucestershire, in the early 1960s, it was still unusual to see a contrail in the sky. The charter air travel industry, which transplanted British seaside culture to the Mediterranean, was in its infancy; transatlantic flights hadn't yet been multiplied by the demands of mass tourism. Now, thanks to the eruption of the Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, the empty skies of my childhood have returned. In a single spasm, Eyjafjallajökull punched a plume of fine ash some eight kilometres into the stratosphere, and winds have spread it across most of Europe. Planes are grounded because the ash cloud hangs at the height at which they cruise, and volcanic ash ingested by jet engines is smelted into glass deposits that quickly choke them. Over London, no planes fly. The city's constant rumble is much diminished. The sky, blue and cloudless, is the province only of birds.

We live, some believe, in the anthropocene age, an era in which human beings have massively altered global ecosystems, and which may have begun with the invention of agriculture, but certainly accelerated during the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, and the oil-based economy of the twentieth and early twenty-first. But Earth's climate and geography, and human history, has also been shaped by more powerful processes. Volcanic activity has been implicated in the Permian-Triassic extinction event 250 million years ago, which wiped out more than 90% of marine species, and 70% of vetebrate animal species on land. The Toba supereruption between 69000 and 77000 years ago created a decade of global winter that could have caused the reduction in human numbers and the bottleneck in human evolution that marks our genomes to this day. Ashes and sulphur compounds injected into the stratosphere by volcanic activity is believed to have contributed to global cooling during the Little Ice Age between the 16th and mid 19th century, and the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 caused the Year Without Summer, ruining crops around the world and causing hundreds of thousands of deaths (and creating spectacular sunsets documented in paintings by Turner).

Eyjafjallajökull may have created all kinds of disruption to travellers, but compared to supervulcanism of the past, or to what might happen if the volcanic dome under Yellowstone Park lets go, it's a mere blip. An inconvenience rather than a catastrophe. A useful reminder that the nemesis which may clobber us won't necessarily be the product of our own hubris. Meanwhile, I'm off to enjoy a spot of peace and quiet while I can.


Blogger saint said...

You might be interested in the impact the volcano is having on atmospheric CO2 output. Information is Beautiful has posted a handy infographic on the effect.

Coincidentally while talking about volcanoes, the capcha I have to pass is "blystr." Sometimes I wonder just how random these capchas are.

April 19, 2010 2:40 am  
Blogger talkie_tim said...

It is amazing to see a sky free of vapour trails, isn't it? I am tickled by the way that while papers are referring to this as chaos, emergency cabinet meetings are being called to decide what to do (give the volcano a good telling off?), and the TV shows pictures of thousands sleeping in airports, the average Joe Bloggs on the street seems to just be taking it all in his stride. So what if we can't holiday in Egypt, so what if we can't get asparagus from Argentina... I've really not seen many people caring.

April 19, 2010 11:05 am  
Anonymous Al R said...

I hope the Beeb are putting this contrail-free window to good use and shooting lots of period dramas...

April 19, 2010 11:43 am  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Saint - thanks for the anthropocene v. the volcano link. There's a suggestion that if enough ice melts thanks to global warming, therte may be much more tectnic and volcanic activity. Interesting feedback mechanism if so.

talkie_tim - indeed, but what about a world permanently without planes?

Al - great lateral thinking, as always!

April 19, 2010 4:37 pm  
Blogger George Berger said...

@talkie tim-----All well and good. But what about the speedy, airborne transport of donated organs from Europe to, say, America? Was this problematic yesterday? I don't know.

April 19, 2010 11:32 pm  
Blogger talkie_tim said...

@Paul McAuley, Yeah, could be a preview of a fragile society. I should have put the 'so whats' in quotes. My point was that all of the people I've spoken to individually seem to be quite resilient and pragmatic about the situation. Compared with the temperaments I saw when other disruptions were going on: the petrol prices protests, or the heavy snowfall through the winter, or the heatwave of 2003, or the 7/11 bombings. My impression of this disruption is that people are a lot less perturbed by it.

@George Berger You're right, of course, I'm sure that there are a lot of systems stretched to breaking point, which is leading, no doubt, to human suffering and even death. I didn't mean to belittle that. It would be good if we could learn from this, and bolster our other transport networks to be able to take up a little more of the slack.

On your specific point, I would be interested to see how many donated organs travel inter-continentally. I would have expected that they would find a recipient a little closer, with the population of Europe as large as it is. Anyone know what population size is required to find a match?

April 20, 2010 10:47 am  
Blogger George Berger said...

@talkie Tim I have no idea. An American friend got a new kidney at the very latest moment. The friend was about to go on permanent dialysis, so it was an emergency. That was the first thing that sprung to mind yesterday. This was a year or two ago, but I wondered if anything drastic happened yesterday, or is or will be happening. I hear that the US Air Force handles such flights to some extent, but the matter is largely unregulated. I simply constructed a hypothetical case. But what about such flights within Northern Europe right now?

April 20, 2010 11:46 am  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

One example of potentially fatal delay: flight ban could delay toddler's bone marrow op. Sometimes the population size for a match is the global population. There are also a good number of problems caused by sourcing of drugs. But in the short term, there seems to be a fair amount of resilience, although people trying to get back from long-haul flight destinations would disagree. And I agree that this is a useful wake-up call - a glimpse of what the post-peak oil world will look like.

April 20, 2010 12:58 pm  

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