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.