06/20/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Woe and the Volcano

Eyjafjallajökull: We can't pronounce it, but it sure has gotten our attention.

Okay, it is pronounceable with help: ay-yah-FYAH'-tlah-yer-kuh-duhl. Before last month, this relatively unknown volcano, located along Iceland's southwest coast about 75 miles from Reykjavik, had been fairly quiet.

2010-04-20-eyjafjallajokull_ali_2010107.jpg Sometimes it's argued that scientific uncertainty about an environmental problem means we shouldn't take action until we're absolutely sure we must mitigate against it. The recent eruption of Eyjafjallajökull might offer a different lesson. (NASA)

The first rumblings of activity began in March (see here and here), but at the time the eruption was little more than a volcanologist's curiosity and an Icelander's worry.

Then on April 14 the location of the eruption changed to beneath the glacier, and the explosive phase began pumping plumes
of smoke and ash almost a mile into the atmosphere -- grabbing international headlines, as I'm sure you've heard, as planes across Europe were grounded and thousands of travelers stranded.

The Glacial Volcano That We've Suddenly Become Aware Of

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Its location along the spreading ridge of the mid-Atlantic, where new ocean crust is formed, makes volcanism a common occurrence in Iceland. Still, before this month, Eyjafjallajökull had not erupted for more than a century.

As it turns out, this recent volcanic belch has produced a whopper of an
ash plume. Meltwater from the glacier sitting atop the volcano mixing with the magma
may have contributed to the eruption's explosiveness. (Watch video of a helicopter landing on the volcano.)

The Costs of the Eruption

Eventually those volcanic ash clouds found themselves over Europe raining ash onto windshields and grinding European air travel to a halt. The situation has reportedly
airlines nearly $1 billion. And while stranded travelers who took out travel insurance should be covered, that coverage, according to the New York Times, will cost insurance companies millions of dollars in claims. Then there are the pet owners who've had to scramble to the rescue of their furry companions which often take different travel routes.

The ripples of Europe's hamstrung air travel have quickly spread in a world run on the global economy. In Kenya, some two million pounds of produce normally shipped daily to European markets sit rotting in "eight-feet tall heaps" with nowhere to go. The cost: $3 million a day to Kenya's top exporting industry and an untold number of jobs. (On a much smaller scale, the volcano's impact even hit me when a Russian colleague I was expecting for a meeting last weekend had to cancel because he couldn't get a flight out of Europe.)

There's a good chance this whole volcanic ash thing will end in a few more days, flights will resume, and a year from now we'll look back on this whole incident with a nostalgic "remember when"?

The X Factor of the Volcano Vis-a-Vis Other Scientific Unknowns

But the bad news is that we really don't know what Eyjafjallajökull has in store. The last time the little-Iceland-volcano-that-could erupted was in the 19th century -- from December 1821 through January 1823. That's right: it coughed up its ash plumes for more than a year.

Imagine disrupted European air travel for that long? Even if the ash plumes only affect, say, 25-50 percent of European flights, it would mean big problems for the industry, the travelers who depend on it, and the businesses reliant on imports and exports (are there any left that aren't at least indirectly affected by the global economy?).

Some might think such disruptions wouldn't be that bad because they'd be periodic -- on when the plume drifts over European airspace and off when it doesn't. Actually, I suspect that such an on again-off again situation would be almost as bad as a complete grounding, as it would inject an unacceptable level of uncertainty to all involved.

There's also a related unknown on the horizon. Every time Eyjafjallajökull has erupted, rumblings from neighboring Katla have
, and typically Katla's eruptions have been much more violent and disruptive.

Between 1783 and 1784, for example, Katla's explosions spewed an estimated (subscription required) 95 million metric tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2) into the atmosphere leading to reports in Europe, Alaska, and China of what was at the time called "dry fog" -- which, in scientific terms, is part and parcel with acidic precipitation. One of the most severe winters on record in Europe and North America followed the event, quite possibly due to the volcano and the havoc its plume wrought on the jet stream.

Such occurrences can serve as a useful reality check. Sometimes it's argued that scientific uncertainty about an environmental problem means we shouldn't take action until we're absolutely sure we must mitigate against it -- think global warming or emerging pollutants.

Here's an example of a scientific uncertainty about the environment related not to human actions but to simple planetary plumbing. How does the fact that we don't know what's going to happen make you feel? Do you feel more secure or less because of the uncertainty? Any changed thoughts on the advisability of that European vacation you were planning for next month? Travel insurance suddenly looking worth the cost? Think about it.

Crossposted with www.theGreenGrok.