So, little by little, Europe’s airports are becoming unclogged and air-based commerce is starting to breathe again after plane travel was largely put on hold by an Icelandic volcano named Eyjafjallajökull. Long after the last newlyweds return from their unexpectedly extended honeymoons and Kenyan flower farmers bring laid-off employees back to work, we should remember a few lessons from Mother Nature’s rude interference with globalised society:
- Quelle surprise! Airplanes cause pollution. We really needed research to prove this? Apparently so, as scientists at King’s College London used the airlines’ down time to verify that levels of nitrous oxides in the air around Gatwick and Heathrow airports fell “virtually to zero” when planes were grounded.
- Particulate overdoses kill clouds. While a certain amount of particulate matter — such as that spewed out by Eyjafjallajökull — in the atmosphere can seed cloud formation and bring on rain, too much puts a stop to clouds and thunderstorms, researchers at Tel Aviv University have found. “The clouds just dry up,” says Colin Price, head of the university’s department of geophysics and planetary science.
- Money, brains and technology alone aren’t always enough. “Of course I should be able to get anywhere in the world in 24 hours!” ranted FT blogger Gideon Rachmann. “There is always a flight out. There is no logistical problem that cannot be solved with a mixture of ingenuity and money.” Unless, of course, nature decides otherwise.
- Just-in-time markets, meet the unexpected. On a normal day, our interconnected global economy tends to perform as expected. But just one departure from normal — a wide-spreading cloud of volcanic ash, for example — can have impacts that cascade across the planet. As a research article published earlier this year in Nature found, complex and interdependent networks aren’t always a guarantee of resilience and redundancy. Quite the opposite: they can make us prone to “catastrophic,” cascading failures.
- Expect more of the same in the future. The Eyjafjallajökull disruption was a practice run for a world entering the end of the cheap oil era, says economist Jeff Rubin, author of “Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalisation.” “What volcanic ash is doing today, triple-digit oil prices will do tomorrow,” he writes.