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