With the British air space being reopened last night for flying after six days, the skies over London roared back to life today, 21 April 2010. It was the first full day of flight operations since the airborne ash from Eyjaffjalljokull (a glacial volcano in Iceland) triggered the first ever shut down of air space over Britain – and later several other countries in western Europe.
Stranded with tens of thousands of other air travellers in London, I’ve been watching the situation unfold and following the debate between airlines, British Met Office and the aviation regulator (which ordered the shut down on safety grounds on April 16).
London (and much of Britain) rolled out near-perfect Spring weather in the past few days — clear blue skies and warm, sunny days. But one thing was conspicuously missing: no aeroplanes flying overhead, and no vapour trails drawing temporary lines in the sky.
Contrails (“condensation trails”) or vapour trails are artificial ‘clouds’ made by condensed water from the exhaust of aircraft engines. As the hot exhaust gases cool in the surrounding air, they sometimes (but not always) produce a ‘cloud’ of microscopic water droplets.
Today, the planes and their vapour trails were back in abundance. It looked almost as if the trails were the airline industry’s way of sticking their tongue out at the aviation regulator, who is now under immense public and media pressure over its conduct in this incident.
That debate will rage on for many days to come. Meanwhile, I’m hoping I can fly back home, belatedly yet soon. While waiting to hear that news, I walked around Central London today clicking images of life on the ground and vapour trails across the lovely blue skies. Here are a few — taken in Leicester Square, Convent Garden, Paddington and Hyde Park.
And boy, what a cough – and with what consequences!
A week ago, most of us had never heard of Eyjaffjalljokull (a glacial volcano in Iceland) — and we’re still struggling to pronounce its name even as it keeps tens of millions of people completely grounded and held ‘hostage’ with its incessant and powerful coughing.
My daughter Dhara and I are currently ‘trapped’ in London: a volcanic ash cloud from Iceland shut down all flights in and over the British Isles on Thursday 15 April 2010. The siege has continued on to the fifth day now, disrupting travel plans of so many people, and causing massive losses to the travel industry. With over 150,000 Britons stranded abroad unable to fly back, the UK is now going into emergency mode to deal with the crisis.
It’s annoying to have an unknown – and unpronounceable! – natural factor crop up and change our carefully laid plans. But things could have been much worse. As I tweeted earlier, as natural disasters go, volcanic ash has been highly disruptive but with no casualties except economic (at least so far).
Life in London goes on with no visible signs of concern. Dhara and I walked around absorbing the sights, sounds and smells of London, and people were going about with life – and welcoming Spring. Joggers in Hyde Park and Regent’s Park, babies being strolled around, and weekend revelers at Camden Town and Trafalgar Square.
We mixed into all these crowds – it’s Dhara’s first time, so she’s wondering what the fuss is all about! (If you’ve traveled with an energetic teenager, you know what I’m coping with.) Yes, we are being ‘held hostage’, but by an ever-so-gentle force that’s invisible to the naked eye: as if in compensation, London has rolled out sunny blue skies (long may they last!). On balance, I’d rather be caught in this kind of situation than in a devastating earthquake or tsunami…
The British media are covering the unfolding situation in great detail, but I haven’t yet seen an estimate of the number of visitors to the UK forced to stay on as there is no current escape from these islands, at least by air. But that number must be significant – and each one has his or her story to tell, some more desperate than others.
Nadia is being adventurous (or just taking her chances). She is planning to take train or ferry or any other means to France, and then catch a train to southern Europe whose airspace is not yet affected by volcanic ash. Her determination is admirable – she just won’t allow this remote volcano to keep her hostage (she call it Eyja: “Do not expect me to ever know its full name. What kind of parent names their son Eyjafjallajoekull?”).
Meanwhile, Dhara and I will hold out for a couple of days more to see if the skies will clear up and the aviation regulators will ease up. As time passes and the flight suspension begins to bite hard, more and more aviation industry professionals are questioning the complete no-fly ban. Some are calling it a regulatory over-reaction.
He adds: “The blanket ban under clear blue skies and glorious sunshine is making some wonder whether this ‘one-size-fits-all’ regulation is appropriate to a situation that the regulations did not foresee…In the final analysis, despite the scares, no one has actually been killed in a volcano incident – something which cannot be said for the much more hazardous drive to the airport.”
Meanwhile, the journal Science has unearthed (no pun intended) from its archives an article published in November 2004 about an enormous volcanic eruption from Iceland’s past — and what it means for the country’s future. It looks at researchers studying one of the largest and least appreciated eruptions in recorded history: volcano Laki that killed 10,000 Icelanders in 1783, and according to recent studies, its billowing plumes led to extreme weather and extensive illness that may have claimed thousands more lives in Britain and on the European continent.
Well, easier said than done! It’s challenging for us journalists to keep a level head and report or comment on a mega-disaster for our media. But it’s even harder being caught up and personally affected by forces of Nature (and according Richard North, regulatory over-reaction). I’ve had my house flooded out, and was close enough to ground zero of the 2004 Asian Tsunami. On both occasions, the impact was brutal and immediate.
Eyja’s persistent coughing is different. It’s a distributed, slowly unfolding phenomenon with zero casualties so far, yet affecting millions. At one level, local residents can continue life’s routines with no threat of basic amenities of life being shattered. We travelers can grumble and remain nervous when we can get home, but at the streets of London are nothing like what the doomsday scenario shows in The Children of Men, placed in a near-future London of 2027.
But as Eyja’s strangely gentle yet firm siege continues – succeeding in closing down Britain’s air space in a way that Hitler and Bin Laden couldn’t – we are reminded of who is really in charge.