The recent chaos surrounding the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland – with effects being felt globally in terms of significant financial losses, disruption to travellers, disruption to food supplies, and so on – needs to provoke some serious discussion as to what actions are needed to prevent even greater, and much longer-term, chaos in the event of a more significant eruption.
After all, history has clearly shown that when Eyjafjallajökull erupts, it’s very much larger neighbour Katla is generally not far behind, and Katla is overdue for an eruption anyway.
While the size of eruptions can never be accurately forecast, the historical evidence shows that Katla’s eruption is likely to be at least ten times the size of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption – and quite possibly more. This could mean not only significant floods of fresh glacial-melt water into the sea (a volume equal to the combined flow of the Amazon, Mississippi, Nile and Yangtze rivers is estimated to have occurred following its 1755 eruption), but a column of ash rising 20km, or more, into the jet stream and being spread over a much greater part of the Northern Hemisphere.
History has already shown some of the worst effects from major volcanic eruptions in Iceland – that of Laki in 1783 resulted in famine across Western Europe, and as far south as Egypt, one of the longest and coldest winters on record in North America, and the death of tens of thousands of people from gas poisoning and famine. It was even linked to the start of the French Revolution, where the lack of food played a significant role.
Admittedly, these are somewhat extreme examples, but they show what is possible should Katla’s eruption be a big one – and almost all experts agree that with Katla, it’s not a question of “if” but of “when” it will erupt.
So, what are some of the possible effects of a big Katla eruption?
- Air travel – the recent 6-day chaos would potentially be dwarfed by one that could last months. This would not only impact passengers, but freight, too. Tourism would certainly be impacted negatively, but so would food imports and general freight movement.
- Agriculture – the impact of a prolonged cold spell would drastically affect crop production in Europe and, potentially, elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere. For Europe, this would just add to the difficulties faced by the lack of air transport to bring in fresh produce from elsewhere.
- Power – of course, a lengthy period of exceptionally cold weather would push up power consumption dramatically. Could Europe cope with a prolonged extra demand for power for heating?
- Wealth – potentially a significant shift in the wealth of Europe as the combination of food shortages, collapsing tourism, freight reduction and prolonged cold takes its toll. Where would this wealth go, and who would benefit?
Disturbingly, though, little attention seems to being paid to this, in spite of the lessons we’ve learnt from Eyjafjallajökull. And if it’s not Katla, how long before another significant eruption – perhaps in Iceland, or perhaps elsewhere (Yellowstone?)…
European, and other, governments need to get together as a matter of urgency on this: the planning for overcoming the potential problems is not something that can be done overnight in a reactive manner. Rather, they need to start work today on ways to reduce the reliance on current modes of air transport (could the airship make a comeback?), to find additional reliable power sources, determine ways to source sufficient food, and so on.
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Very good article Guy. Certainly makes one rethink investments around the globe as we seem to have entered a period of unpresidented Natural disasters and lloks like the worst is yet to come from further earthquakes, tsunami’s, Floods, Volcanoe’s, Drought, Pestilence etc., Maybe more governemnts should take note and try to put alternate plans of action together “Before” the Next Major disaster strikes. I certainly think the EU and or UN should hire you to put a team together to research this further and put some plans in place.
I’m not sure that the world is less stable geologically – it’s just that the current problems have been a lot more visible (most eruptions and earthquakes are under the sea and cause little/no damage).
However, what has been highlighted is how unprepared the “developed world” is to cope with this sort of thing, and responding in a purely reactive manner is not going to be nearly good enough (it’s only a matter of time before Katla erupts, the only issue being how big that eruption will be).
As for governments hiring me to form a task force 🙂 Nice idea, but it’s not going to happen – they hire insiders.
It would really surprise me if anything is done in this respect Guy. Iceland isn’t even a member of the EU. The 27 member states can not agree on much and as far as they are concerned there are more urgent issues to deal with. Greece for instance.
Agricultural products are massively over produced in the EU as a result of CAP. So we will just have to start consuming them instead of exporting them for next to nothing to developing countries. Would enable farmers in, for instance, Africa to start making a living as farmers again. So maybe something good could come out of another eruption?
SAS the Scandinavian airline lost a lot of money during the six days it wasn’t able to fly. So the Swedish, and presumably Danish and Norwegian governments supplied money. Nobody would miss that airline the catch is Scandinavia would then need another airline to make the area competive on the global market. So they will not let SAS go down the drain, yet at least.
A lot of Scandinavians used cars, taxis, trains and buses to travel all over Europe – and further – during the six days of ashes. One Danish businessman got a taxi to drive him to a meeting in Zurich.
What will happen if there is a massive eruption like you discribe is that the global market will be cut down to regional markets. When it comes to food that would probably be more difficult for the Gulf to cope with.
Europe will survive – no doubt about that.
I fully agree that the chance of governments doing anything about this proactively are remote indeed! Nonetheless it does not detract from the necessity that they do so for when Katla does erupt, and if it is a major eruption, the results will be felt for a very long time.
Yes, markets will need to become more regional but if the ash cloud is sufficiently big to cause a “nuclear winter” effect, Europe will simply not be able to produce the crops it needs to feed itself and will be forced to find ways to import food. Similarly with energy for heating, etc.
The effects of a really big eruption could impact climate for several years and this is the main concern.
I agree that there are probably too many airlines and some could disappear and not be missed (except for national pride reasons), but we do need to look at alternative transport – for example, long-distance high-speed freight rail links to the East would be considerably quicker than ships and, in the long term, cheaper than flying freight in jet aircraft. There are other alternatives, too.
Videoconferencing would obviously experience a massive increase for business use, while tourism would, of necessity, become regionally focused again (to the detriment of developing nations).
It basically needs a rethink of our current paradigm. Unfortunately, as we agree, governments are very unlikely to do anything until it’s “too late” and will then react in a panic fashion.