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such a nasty woman | by maryann johanson

question of the weekend: How would our world change if air traffic over Europe were shut down for a year or more?

Air travel to and from Europe has been disrupted — it’s been all but nonexistent, in fact — for days now because of the danger posed by the ash cloud being spewed out of the erupting Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland. Each day, news reports have been saying things like:

Forecasts suggest the cloud of ash will persist and that the impact will continue for at least the next 24 hours, Eurocontrol said Saturday morning.

But “the next 24 hours” keeps getting pushed back. What’s more:

“We cannot tell how long an eruption like this will go on,” [Agust Gunnar] Gylfason[, a project manager at Iceland’s Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management] said.

When the volcano last erupted in 1821, the eruption lasted on and off for two years, Gylfason said.

Two years? How would our world change if air traffic over Europe were shut down for a year or more? It would be an economic catastrophe, at least, driving a fundamental shift in how the world engages with one another. Trains and ocean travel could only take up so much of the slack: perhaps the Internet and other telecommunications would become even more important?

(Awesome picture of the ash cloud here.)

On a geek-related note, someone commenting on a BBC America Facebook posting about the new Doctor Who was worried whether Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, and Steven Moffat were stuck in New York — where they’ve been promoting the show — because of the travel disruptions. I figure, if they were stuck here for a year, they’d just have to shoot the next season here. The only standing set they have is the TARDIS interior (which would probably be prohibitively expensive to rebuild on a stage in NYC), so clever Moffat will come up with an arc that involves the Doctor being separated from the TARDIS, and start doing a lot of new writing (I’m sure most if not all of the next season is already written), but it could be done.

Your turn…

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD/QOTW, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTW sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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  • Kenny

    Well. I live in Glasgow in Scotland. My girlfriend lives on Long Island in New York.
    As you can imagine, air travel and Skype are the only two things that allow us to carry on our relationship. I don’t think Skype could manage on its own for two years.
    This could be a life changing disaster for me personally.

  • NorthernStar

    Europe has excellent shipping routes and has done for hundreds of years. Planes have made travel and the transport of goods easier, but worse case senario of no airflight would not be a threat to civilisation as we know it.

    We would still have adequate food and other trade goods coming in, although it would be more expensive to buy from the Far East and the US, so in that light it might actually be good for the growth of the European Union, in social unity terms as well as economically.

    I don’t know how much the US relies on export to Europe. Would a drop in demand from the European market affect your businesses?

    On a personal note, it’s very strange not hearing aircraft overhead, peaceful in a eerie sort of way.

  • AW

    I think because of all the ferry links to Europe things would carry on almost as normal with goods coming to and from the UK without much issue. I could see the increase in the use of the internet to cut out unnecessary business journeys abroad. But otherwise that side of things probably wouldn’t change much.

    What I do think would be hit would be the tourism industry both in the UK and Europe because people going on holiday are so accustomed to getting from A to B quickly and relatively easily by plane they wouldn’t take to the extra travel time by either land or sea. Plus no doubt the costs would rise as industries capitalize on the limited travel options.

  • Based on personal experience in my country during “interesting” times, I don’t think that the long absence of air traffic alone could bring the End of Civilisation As We Know It. Humans are adaptable – those who need to travel will use ships, trains and cars. Goods and resources that need to be delivered will be delivered.

    In short term there could be some more than unpleasant aftermath for certain regions and certain industries. Tourism is likely to be hit hard and not recover for years, maybe even decades. Climatic consequences could create problems for agriculture. On the other hand, some individuals, companies, industries, regions and countries might profit from all of this.

    I think that the most likely or the most obvious effect of current situation on world’s film and TV industry might be in non-European productions (Hollywood) abandoning European locations and studios for a foreseeable future and seeking alternatives in other parts of the world.

  • Heather M

    I lived in Scotland for almost 4 years and have been desperate to visit since moving back to Canada two years ago. I had vacation days booked from work for the end of this month, but for various reasons I wasn’t able to book a flight to go — now, it’s just as well I couldn’t!

    I’ve been pondering what long-term effects this could have, and I’m thinking the same way I did when the Y2K bug was threatening, what the atmosphere was like right after the attacks in 2001, when we facing a flu pandemic last year — we don’t really know anymore what it’s like to live with privation, with not being able to do the things we want, go where we want, whenever we want, pretty much. I can’t imagine for myself what it would’ve been like, truly, to live in the Great Depression or WW2 when everyone was poor, or you physically could not go somewhere. If this natural disaster really does put constraints on us, on a purely logical level, that might be good for us. Yet of course on a selfish level, I may not be able to get to Scotland for another year, and I’m staring to seriously worry what this ash will do to my friends’ health!

  • On the bright side: Fewer carbon emissions from planes.

  • Ash like this is particularly bad for one’s health. If it lasts too long, I wouldn’t be surprised if they evacuated the country.

  • Kenny

    Most people don’t breath the air at 30-40’000 feet…

  • But I was reading that in Iceland itself, people are taping up windows and have to keep animals inside.

  • Kenny

    Oh.. yes I apologise, I misunderstood. Yeh, in the last big eruption a lot of livestock apparently died. Many Icelanders too..

  • chiclit

    Its worth noting that several volcanoes in the US could do exactly the same thing-and have in the past. In fact, I was able to take a regional work training at the last minute last spring-when colleagues from Alaska couldn’t fly out of Anchorage due to volcanic ash erupting from Mt Redoubt. A few of the folks from the class had come down early-and a week later they were stranded for several more days before they could fly back. Fortunately, company covered it, but my heart goes out to holidayers in Europe who went on a budget or with limited days off-and now are stranded on an extended trip they can’t afford to be on.

  • RyanT

    Well there’s the London 2012 Olympics and any other sports event that require people from all over the world to meet up in Europe (World Cup, Grand Slam tennis, etc.).

    As for the Doctor Who cast, I suspect instead of putting all of their energies trying to accommodate shooting here, they’d probably just take a boat across. Cruises aren’t affected, right?

  • ceti

    Check this graph: http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/2010/planes-or-volcano/

    Ironically, some breathing room.

  • RogerBW

    If we are fortunate, the idiots who think it’s better to wait for a week in hopes of getting on a plane rather than spend twenty hours on a train will die off.

    There’s plenty of slack capacity for travel within Europe. It’s trips outside that are malaffected. And most people don’t need to travel most of the time; that’s what telephones and the Internet are for.

    Commercial aviation has been more trouble than it was worth since the security theatre loonies were allowed to take over. This won’t affect me or most people I know in the slightest.

  • Kenny

    I think “more trouble than it’s worth” is a ridiculous statement to make.
    The girl I hope to spend my life with lives an 8 hour flight away from me.
    My options are very simple… frequently submit myself to the stupid and paranoid security measures required at modern Western airports, or never see her.
    I for one can deal with airport security, and I’m not about to jump on the “oh isn’t it lovely not to have all that noise!” bandwagon.

    P.S. All those poor nations who export mountains of produce to the UK and Europe? Losing millions every day.

  • I agree with Kenny–commercial aviation is obviously important for a variety of reasons–but I’m also impressed by that graph that ceti provided a couple of posts above. Impressed because (1) the graph has been adjusted a couple of times, a great example of how the scientific community corrects itself in the light of new info (a strength, not a weakness); and (2) despite the volcano’s own emissions, it’s clear that grounding flights over Europe is resulting in significantly less CO2 emissions each day.

    Maybe this eruption can be the starting point for a conversation about a whole bunch of things: the feasibility of developing more high-speed rail, or of relying more on local agriculture, or of geoengineering to influence climate (I believe one of the proposals was to inject ash or some other particles into the atmosphere, and this volcano might make a great case study for what would actually happen if we do that).

  • LaSargenta

    Well, well…resurrecting this old thing since — guess what? — there’s been over 1000 earthquakes in Iceland, many over 3.0 magnitude, in the last 72 hours. Most have been from around the volcano Bárðarbunga under the Vatnajökull glacier. Here’s a useful link: http://en.vedur.is/

    Could be nothing, could lead to flooding, could be like Grímsvötn and not too serious, or it could be like Eyjafjallajökull and make a BIG mess…or it could be like whichever one it was that blew it’s top in the 18th c. and supposedly caused famines across Europe.

  • LaSargenta

    I know all eyes are on the Sin Shitty 2 post, but I just have to share this … http://en.vedur.is/earthquakes-and-volcanism/earthquakes#view=map

    In the last 48 hours, there have been (as of this comment) 1996 earthquakes and 13 of them have been Magnitude ≥3

    Strolls away whistling.

  • Crap.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Huh. That’s some swarming. I’m not sure I’d stroll away…

  • LaSargenta

    Well, if I were on Vatnajokull, I’d be swifter.

  • LaSargenta

    Two hours ago, they detected a lava flow under the glacier: http://en.vedur.is/earthquakes-and-volcanism/articles/nr/2947 The aviation code has been changed to red. Doesn’t mean it is going to be enormous, nor even that there’ll be airborne ash clouds. Might just melt 150 meters of ice and flood a whole lot of valleys.

    But, Iceland’s volcanos are always worth keeping an eye on.

  • Bluejay

    You’re mad, Jor-El, mad! These earthquakes mean nothing.

    — The Krypton Science Council

  • LaSargenta


    And, now for no reason at all…this is going through my head today while I try to focus on work I need to finish before Not Thinking About Work Starting Tomorrow Morning: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kMIaYXxLnUA

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