Geography Directions: Eyjafjallajökull: Geography’s Harsh Reminder

From our Geography Directions site reviewing Wiley-Blackwell’s Geography Compass review journal covering the entire discipline.  Keep up with cutting edge academic geography.  These articles may be useful for introducing students to the discipline or may be appropriate for upper division Geography classes.

The eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull on 20 March 2010 caught Europe dangerously off-guard. For two months, waves of ash closed some of the world’s busiest airspace. An estimated ten million passengers were left stranded, international train services collapsed under the heightened strain of people seeking alternate transportation, and governments were left to deal with angered airlines seeking to regain some portion of lost revenue. In total, over one hundred thousand flights were cancelled. The legal and political fallout of Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption continues today. A fundamental questions lies at the heart of this debate: why wasn’t Europe better warned or prepared? Amy R Donovan and Clive Oppenheimer (University of Cambridge) highlighted this problem in their March 2011 Geographical Journal commentary. The danger such natural events as Eyjafjallajökull pose, as Donovan and Oppenheimer argue, is that they lie outside the traditional realm of managerial governance.

Many natural events, however dangerous, lend governments two favours: first, relatively ample warning; second, comparatively localised impact. Hurricanes are an excellent case-in-point. Every summer NOAA, the United States’s oceanographic and atmospheric monitoring agency, continuously tracks existing storms and recalculates their future projectories. Excepting such hurricanes as Andrew and Katrina–most hurricanes cause damage across a limited geographic expanse before weakening significantly in strength. The snowstorms that rack the American northeast are similarly tracked in advance so that appropriate precautions can be taken (even if, in the event, those precautions prove inadequate).

The Eyjafjallajökull eruption, much like the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and the 2010 Haiti earthquake, presents a very different scenario. Such events are difficult to forecast, even more difficult to contain, and–like other natural events–impossible to prevent. But, as The Geographical Journal commentary noted, preventative steps could have been taken. Although the Met Office’sVolcanic Ash Advisory Centre (VAAC), clearly noted the airspace risks posed by Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull volcanoes, this information was not included in the annual National Risk Register, nor did it predicate the implementation of ‘sophisticated, integrated UK or EU policy in advance of the recent volcanic activity’ (p. 2). One hopes that the Eyjafjallajökull airspace fiasco will serve as a reminder of our inability to tame the extremes of physical geography.

By Benjamin Sacks

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