Volcanic fallout

If there is a lesson to be learned - again - from the billowing clouds of volcanic ash in the skies over Europe, it is the latent power of nature.

In 1783, the eruption of the volcano Laki in Iceland lasted for about eight months.

The effects of the layers of dust it threw into the atmosphere have been linked, among other things, to the failure of crops in France, and subsequent famine.

The fallout, Dr Stephen Edwards of the Department of Earth Sciences at University College London told the London Observer at the weekend, may have been one of a number of factors that led to the French Revolution.

Devotees of Chaos Theory will recall the so-called "butterfly effect" which supposed that tiny changes to the equilibrium of a system could initiate a chain of events leading to large-scale chaos.

While the analogies may be crude, the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull (which translates as Island Mountain Glacier) in Iceland last Wednesday, has certainly brought chaos to much of the developed world, the final effects of which can, at this point, only be guessed at.

By Thursday, the first and immediate consequences began to be felt with the cancellation of a large number of flights in northwest Europe, including Ireland, the United Kingdom, and Scandinavia as the Icelandic volcanic cloud began to drift south and east.

A day later, all flights in and out of the United Kingdom and many other countries in Europe had been stopped.

While there are no recorded fatal crashes involving volcanic ash, there have been several instances of damage incurred and temporary lost engine power.

Until Monday at least, most airlines were adopting a rigorous safety first policy, and while by yesterday there was a degree of flight resumption, the immediate future for airlines flying over parts of Europe remains hazy.

With few signs of the eruption abating many worried observers - economists, airline bosses, exporters, business executives, and politicians - will be watching the situation anxiously.

The immediate concern in New Zealand, naturally, has been the fate of friends and relatives travelling abroad and stranded by the disruption.

By Monday, following numerous test flights, some countries were resuming limited services, but with the passenger and freight backlogs growing, the chaos overtaking both travel and international commerce would only continue.

Many New Zealanders, including from Otago, took the disruption in their stride, some finding themselves with extra days in European destinations to do unscheduled sightseeing; others, headed for Europe, were stranded in airports in popular transit stops such as Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Singapore or Dubai.

Personal inconvenience aside, the overriding threat of the European air transport system shutdown is economic.

The interruption to normal service is costing the airline industry alone almost $NZ500 million a day, according to a conservative estimate by the International Air Transport Association.

The knock-on effects to a world economy just beginning to witness the signs of a fragile recovery from the recent recession, could be considerably amplified beyond the immediate consequences of cancelled flights.

On Sunday, the EU executive said it was setting up a group to assess the economic impact of the volcanic ash cloud, stating that it has created "an unprecedented situation" which required a co-ordinated approach.

Trade and tourism are likely to be two of the most affected sectors - with billions of dollars in foregone opportunities and lost perishable goods either in European warehouses awaiting air freight out, or in other countries relying on European markets to take their own produce.

New Zealand exporters of flowers and seafood will be particularly concerned, and have already been affected.

Then there are the less-immediate and difficult-to-quantify effects of cancelled business, trade and political meetings, as well as the blow the disruption has meant to world airlines, many of which - buffeted by high fuel costs and aggressive competition - had already been operating close to the margins.

On historical and geological scales, the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull is not considered to be particularly significant.

One commentator has referred to it as a mere "inflamed pimple" among volcanoes.

But erupting its dark billows of smoke and ash out over European airspace, it has certainly caused more than a little chaos - a humbling reminder of how fragile human endeavour can be in the face of forces of nature unleashed.