Thursday, April 15, 2010

Nature Meets High-Technology - Nature Wins

Curious creatures that we are, mankind has raced headlong to embrace the latest and greatest technology just as quickly as it can be churned out. We like it so much we become utterly dependent upon it, leaving us ridiculously vulnerable when it and we fail.

Take air travel and, today, take Britain. Flights are grounded today because of dangerous levels of ash that have entered British airspace from a volcano that erupted in Iceland. Not so bad, I suppose. Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano hasn't erupted in 200 years.


The last time Eyjafjallajökull erupted, it went on for a year. If the current eruption is no worse than the last, Britain still faces the possibility of repeated air travel disruptions over the next year. From The Telegraph:

Professor Bill McGuire, of the Aon Benfield Hazard Research Centre at University College London, said the previous eruption, in December 1821, lasted until January 1823.

He said air travel could be curtailed repeatedly if the current eruption lasted the same amount of time.

However, he added: "There is no way of knowing for certain how long this eruption will last based on previous events. The level of disruption would also depend on how much gas and ash is produced."

The most notable previous example of Icelandic volcanic activity causing problems for Britain
was in 1783, when an eruption at Laki sent a huge toxic cloud of sulphur across Western Europe, killing an estimated 23,000 Britons.

I suppose memory may be mankind's Achilles' Heel. We shape our reality by events of the past generation, sometimes two, but pretty much wipe the slate clean about anything beyond that. Even here on the island, we're likely to have heard the accounts of the mega-earthquakes and monster tsunamis that arrive every few centuries from the giant subduction fault right beneath us and we know the clock's ticking but just getting by means you pretty much have to put that out of mind.

Maybe the earthquake threat comes right down to "you pay your money and take your chances." We can reinforce our homes and keep a stock of canned food in the cupboard but, beyond that, it's pretty much out of our control. But what of an even greater threat, one that's truly global in dimension, one that's not just within our control but of our own creation? A threat that could stress our economies, our very civilization to the breaking point. A threat that comes with a hair-trigger, tipping points that, when reached, send the threat spiralling out of our control.

I'm not referring simply to global warming either. The threat is the host of man-made environmental disasters we're steadily building around the world - global warming; climate change; soil exhaustion and desertification; the disruption and collapse of freshwater systems; deforestation; air, soil and water contamination; overpopulation; species extinction and loss of biodiversity; species, disease and population migration; resource depletion; precipitation pattern imbalances (drought and flood); spreading militarization and arms races; nuclear proliferation and terrorism. Sort of makes you yearn for the darkest days of the Cold War, no?

This Icelandic volcano problem is a very cheap lesson that, when mankind's ways and our technology clash with nature, we don't win. We can buy time. If we're lucky, we can shelter ourselves from the worst. But we don't win. Ever.


LeDaro said...

Nature always wins. There is a possibility of a big earthquake where “city of angels” is located or Las Angles. Recently scientists found out about a new fault right under the city which they previously did not know. If that big one happens current "earthquake proof" skyscraper may not survive it.

LMA said...

Lovelock was right. We are too "stupid" to realize how little we know and how powerless we are to control nature. There was a recent article in the New York Times stating that fertilizing the oceans with iron may indeed increase the growth of phytoplankton and reduce atmospheric CO2, but will also increase their production of a neurotoxin, domoic acid, deadly to marine life and humans. As if the threat of natural disasters weren't bad enough, we can't seem to stop tinkering with natural systems which have evolved over millions of years, always looking for what is "new and improved".

Oemissions said...

it sounds very scary.
the particulate, i heard on the news can harm the propellors.
what about lungs?

The Mound of Sound said...

I recall a British Airways 747 en route to or from New Zealand, if memory serves, that lost all four engines from flying through a volcanic ash cloud. I think the dust and gases just choked out the engines. Fortunately the crew were able to regain control and relight the engines once they cleared the cloud.

My parents were out visiting me in Vancouver a million years ago when Mt. St. Helens erupted. We heard and felt that strongly in Vancouver but the prevailing winds kept us clear of the ash clouds. My folks, however, had to deal with it for most of their drive back to Ontario. The ash ruined the paint on their car, scouring away the gloss. They learned that the particles are like sharp glass that abraid whatever they hit. Drive through enough of them, fast enough and you lose your paint job.