Most of us had never heard the word Eyjafjallajökull before this week. We can print the name, but virtually no one in the world media community can pronounce it. No, it is not the name of a potato peeler sold at IKEA; it’s the Icelandic volcano that has shut down air traffic in Europe for the past four days.
On June 24, 1982 ash from the eruption of Mount Galunggung shut down all four engines of British Airways Flight 9, a Boeing 747 flying over the Indian Ocean south of Java. Fortunately the crew was able to restart the engines after the plane had flown out of the ash cloud, but all engines were severely damaged when the crippled aircraft finally touched down in Jakarta. This dramatic incident called attention to the aircraft damage that can occur from volcanic ash.
While Eyjafjallajökull’s eruptions have been much smaller than those from Mount St. Helens and ash has reached altitudes of 20,000 feet, compared with 50,000 feet from St. Helens, the volcanic debris from this Icelandic wonder has remained stuck over northern European air space, due to stagnant winds. It is possible that European airports could be closed yet another week, until the prevailing winds blow the ash southward.
The effect on the international airline industry, which uses connecting flights through London, Amsterdam, and Frankfurt, has been devastating. Hundreds of thousands of travelers remain stuck in places like Shanghai, Bangkok, Nairobi, and Bombay awaiting connecting flights through Europe to the United States and places west. The economic effect on Europe’s domestic airline industry must be horrible, with all flights grounded.
I wondered about the effect of Eyjafjallajökull on global warming. Apparently, in the short run volcanic eruptions may actually cool the earth as the ash and dust particles blown into the atmosphere can reflect the sun’s rays away from the earth’s surface. In 1991 a huge eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines (an explosion ten times greater than Mount St. Helens) actually reduced the earth’s temperatures by half of a degree over the next year. Eyjafjallajökull is not expected to have any significant effect on the earth’s temperatures. It could, at most, cool Northern Europe for a time.
Not to worry. While even the eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull won’t cool the earth enough to spare us from the disaster called global warming, we can rest assured that Nancy Pelosi, Harry Ried, and Barack Obama can come up with the proper legislation to get the job done!