Prisoners of Volcano Eyjaffjalljokull: ‘Tectonic Terror’ grounds much of Europe

Eyjaffjalljokull erupting away in Iceland
Call it the cough heard around the world.

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 goes on in London: Regent's Park, 17 April 2010
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.

Take, for example, my friend Nadia El-Awady, who was in London for the same annual board meeting of SciDev.Net (and now grounded with the rest of the Board!). She has four young children waiting for her at home, in Cairo. She’s been blogging and tweeting about her plight, which in many ways mirrors my own.

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?”).

Dhara at Trafalgar Square, 18 April 2010
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.

Richard North, co-author of Scared To Death – From BSE To Global Warming: Why Scares Are Costing Us The Earth, had an excellent piece in The Mail on Sunday this weekend. He wrote: “What we are witnessing here is not a natural law, enshrined since time immemorial but a policy drawn up by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and then interpreted and enforced by the UK’s National Air Traffic Service (NATS). And that interpretation requires some scrutiny.”

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.

An image made available by NEODAAS/University of Dundee which shows the volcanic ash plume from Iceland, top left, to northern France as pictured by Nasa\'s Terra Satellite on 17 April 2010. Photo courtesy NEODAAS/University of Dundee/AP
It’s not exactly a comforting thought to read how much worse a volcanic eruption could be. The piece was written by science writer Richard Stone (currently their Asia News Editor, and my fellow panelist at the science journalists conference last Summer in London). Interestingly, the headline I gave to that blog post was: Reporting disasters: How to keep a cool head when all hell breaks loose.

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.

Reporting disasters: How to keep a cool head when all hell breaks loose

WCSJ London

News by definition looks for the exception. What goes right, and according to plan, is hardly news. Deviations, aberrations and accidents hit the news.

It’s the same with disasters. Reducing a hazard or averting a disaster does not make the news; when that hazard turns into a disaster, that typically tops the news. Yet, as we discussed during a session at the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists held in London from June 30 – July 2, 2009, both aspects are important — and both present many challenges to journalists and the media.

The session, titled Covering a disaster from Sichuan to Sri Lanka, saw three science journalists share their own experiences and insights in covering two major disasters in Asia. Richard Stone (Asia News Editor, Science) and Hujun Li (senior science writer with Caijing magazine, China) both spoke about covering the Sichuan earthquake that occurred on 12 May 2008. I spoke on my experiences in covering the Indian Ocean tsunami of 26 December 2004. The session was chaired by the veteran (and affable) British journalist Tim Radford, who has been The Guardian‘s arts editor, literary editor and science editor.

Covering a disaster from Sichuan to Sri Lanka: L to R: Hujun Li, Nalaka Gunawardene and Richard Stone
Covering a disaster from Sichuan to Sri Lanka: L to R: Hujun Li, Nalaka Gunawardene and Richard Stone
I recalled the post-tsunami media coverage in two phases — breaking news phase (first 7 – 10 days) and the aftermath, which lasted for months. When the news broke on a lazy Sunday morning, ‘Tsunami’ was a completely alien term for most media professionals in Sri Lanka. In newspaper offices, as well as radio and TV studios, journalists suddenly had to explain to their audiences what had happened, where and how. This required journalists to quickly educate themselves, and track down geologists and oceanographers to obtain expert interpretation of the unfolding events. We than had to distill it in non-technical terms for our audiences.

My involvement in this phase was as a regular ‘TV pundit’ and commentator on live TV broadcasts of MTV Channels, Sri Lanka’s largest and most popular broadcast network. Night after night on live TV, we talked about the basics of tsunami and earthquakes, and summed up the latest information on what had taken place. We also acknowledged the limits of science -– for example, despite advances in science and technology, there still was no way of predicting earthquakes in advance.

One question we simply couldn’t answer was frequently raised by thousands of people who lost their loved ones or homes: why did it happen now, here — and to us? Was it an act of God? Was it mass scale karma? As science journalists, we didn’t want to get into these debates — we had to be sensitive when public emotions were running high.

There were enough topics during the breaking news phase that had a scientific angle. Clinically cold as it sounded, the mass deaths required the safe, proper and fast burial of bodies with identities established. The survivors had to be provided shelter, food, safe drinking water and counselling. And when rumours were spreading on the possibility of further tsunamis, both officials and public needed credible information from trusted, competent sources.

Tsunami waves lashing Kalutara beach on western Sri Lanka on 26 December 2004: satellite image courtesy DigitalGlobe Quickbird satellite,
Tsunami waves lashing Kalutara beach on western Sri Lanka on 26 December 2004: satellite image courtesy DigitalGlobe Quickbird satellite,

After the breaking news phase passed, we had more time to pursue specific stories and angles related to the tsunami. As an environmentally sensitive journalist, I was naturally interested in how the killer waves had impacted coastal ecosystems. Then I heard some interesting news reports – on how some elements of Nature had buffered certain locations from Nature’s own fury.

Within days, such news emerged from almost all Tsunami-affected countries. They talked about how coral reefs, mangroves and sand dunes had helped protect some communities or resorts by acting as ‘natural barriers’ against the Tsunami waves. These had not only saved many lives but, in some cases, also reduced property damage. Scientists already knew about this phenomenon, called the ‘greenbelt effect’. Mangroves, coral reefs and sand dunes may not fully block out tsunamis or cyclones, but they can often reduce their impact.

Researching this led to the production of TVE Asia Pacific‘s regional TV series called The Greenbelt Reports, which was filmed at a dozen tsunami impacted locations in South and Southeast Asia. By the time we released the series in December 2006, sufficient time had passed for the affected countries to derive environmental lessons of the tsunami.

The other big story I closely followed was on early warnings for rapid on-set disasters like tsunamis. Some believed that the tsunami caught Indian Ocean rim countries entirely by surprise, but that wasn’t quite true. While the countries of South and Southeast Asia were largely unprepared to act on the tsunami, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre (PTWC) in Hawaii, who had detected the extraordinary seismic activity, did issued a tsunami warning one hour after the undersea quake off western Sumatra. This was received at Sri Lanka’s government-run seismological centre in good time, but went unheeded: no one reacted with the swiftness such information warranted. Had a local warning been issued, timely coastal evacuation could have saved thousands.

Views from Ground Zero of several disasters...
Views from Ground Zero of several disasters...
Part of my sustained coverage focused on logistical, technological and socio-cultural challenges in delivering timely, credible and effective early warnings to communities at risk. I did this by writing opinion essays on SciDev.Net and elsewhere, partnering in the HazInfo action research project in Sri Lanka, and leading the Communicating Disasters Asian regional project. A lasting outcome is the multi-author book on Communicating Disasters that I co-edited in December 2007.

All this shows the many and varied science or development stories that journalists can find in the aftermath of disasters. Some of these are obvious and widely covered. Others need to be unearthed and researched involving months of hard work and considerable resources. Revisiting the scenes of disasters, and talking to the affected people weeks or months after the event, often brings up new dimensions and insights.

My own advice to science journalists was that they should leave the strictly political stories to general news reporters, and instead concentrate on the more technical or less self-evident facets in a disaster. During discussion, senior journalist Daniel Nelson suggested that all disaster stories are inherently political as they deal with social disparities and inequalities. I fully agreed that a strict separation of such social issues and science stories wasn’t possible or desirable. However, science journalists are well equipped to sniff out stories that aren’t obviously covered by all members of the media pack that descends on Ground Zero. Someone needs to go beyond body counts and aid appeals to ask the hard questions.

As Hujun Li said recalling the post-Sichuan quake experience, “Politics and science are like twins – we can’t separate the two. What we as science journalists can do is to gather scientific evidence and opinion before we critique official policies or practices.”

Another question we were asked was how journalists can deal with emotions when they are surrounded by so much death and destruction in disaster scenes. Reference was made to trauma that some reporters experience in such situations.

I said: “We are human beings first and journalists next, so it’s entirely normal for us to be affected by what is happening all around us. On more than one occasion in the days following the tsunami, I spoke on live television with a lump in my throat; I know of presenters who broke down on the air when emotions overwhelmed them.”

SciDev.Net blog post: Finding the science in the midst of disaster

And now...the sequels
And now...the sequels
Summing up, Tim Radford emphasized the need for the media to take more interest in Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR), which basically means preventing disasters or minimising the effects of disasters.

“DRR is perhaps less ‘sexy’ for the media, as it involves lots of policies and practices sustained over time,” he said. “But the potential to do public good through these interventions is enormous.”

As Tim reminded us, disasters already exact a terrible and enduring toll on the poorest countries. This is set to get worse as human numbers increase and climate change causes extreme weather and creates other adverse impacts. Living with climate change would require sustained investments in DRR at every level.

Read Tim Radford on how disasters hit the poor the hardest (The Guardian, 22 May 2009).

The stories are out there to be captured, analysed and communicated. In the coming years, the best stories may well turn out to be on disasters averted or minimised