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Friday, April 16, 2010

Mother Nature Closes Down Europe

Britain hasn't had a volcanic eruption for millions of years but mother nature gave everyone a reality check yesterday when Iceland's volcano erupted and shut down UK air space - no planes were allowed in or out of the country and thousands of flights were cancelled across northern Europe.

A huge eruption in Iceland in 1695 sent sulphurus fog across the Scottish Highlands and could have contributed to the terrible famine that came shortly after. In 1783 Iceland's Laki volcano spewed sulphurous cloud that hung over Europe for months and shortly thereafter, very hot temperatures and poor air quality killed thousands of the elderly and very young.

This time, it's ash rather than gas so health problems are unlikely. But there is a chilling side-effect - volcanic ash and machinery don't mix - it penetrates sensitive electronics, clogs filters, contaminates water, damages crops and makes livestock ill. It is also an airline pilot's worst nightmare. If a plane strikes an ash cloud, the particles can damage the windscreen and clog the engines. Over the past 30 years there have been more than 80 incidents of aircraft hitting volcanic ash clouds. In 1982 a British Airways 747 hit one over Indonesia and all four engines failed and the plane dropped 7,000 metres before they could be restarted.

When Tambora in Indonesia erupted in 1815, it wrapped a veil of sulphur around the entire planet, blocking the sun's rays that led to the so-called year without summer. Bitter cold and frosts devastated harvests in North America while in Europe they had bread riots which led to the worst food shortage crisis in the western world. About 74,000 years ago, scientists believe that when the Indonesian volcano Toba erupted, it almost wiped out the human race.

By comparison, this most inconvenient disruption to business and holiday travel reminds us that not-withstanding all our wonderful technology and know-how, Mother Nature is still very much the boss.