Saturday, April 24, 2010

Mother Earth's Party

Two days ago, on April 22nd, we celebrated Earth Day. This writing was supposed to be published then but the family was grappling with either a  noro- or rotavirus. Both are teeny tiny pathogens that are far too small to be seen with an optical microscope but which behave in a bullish and nasty manner.

Not only was it Mother Earth's Day: it has been her Month and Year as well. Eastern North America and Europe have had a record cold winter; we here in the Pacific NW have enjoyed the warmest one in many decades. Earthquakes have happened unusually often, including a catastrophic one in Haiti and one of the strongest ever recorded in Southern Chile. Mother Earth then decided it was time for some fireworks and lit a Roman candle in the faraway nation of Iceland. The eruption under the Eyjafjallajökull glacier wasn't a gigantic one but managed to melt enough ice and snow to cause dangerous flooding and the closure of Iceland's Route No. 1, a highway that circles the beautiful island. It did, however, cough up quite a bit a volcanic ash which with the prevailing winds traveled to Northern and Central Europe, effectively closing all air travel. Tens of thousands of tourists and other travelers were stuck for many days, unable to get back home. Ironically Iceland's main airport in Keflavik remained open until a couple days ago as the wind blew all the ash elsewhere. Sky at night turned green over there as the photo shows.

Europe is relatively small and has an excellent system of trains, highways and ferries where smaller bodies of water need to be crossed. However, train tickets were sold out in record time, same with car rentals. In most cases people just had to wait. It is no longer really a possibility to cross an ocean on a ship, unfortunately. We have become a world far too dependent on the airplane. Hotels saw an opportunity to make money in otherwise suffering economy. Some did triple their daily rates in places like London. The famed British comedian John Cleese was stuck in Oslo, Norway, and couldn't find transportation back to the continent. Supposedly he came up with a brilliant idea and hired a taxi to take him to Brussels in Belgium. Since Skåne, Southern Sweden, is connected to Denmark with a bridge/tunnel combination, he and the driver didn't even have to worry about overcrowded ferries. The fee I saw mentioned was over €3,000, about $5,400 in U.S. currency. Oslo is pretty far, so we are not talking a nice little ride in the neighborhood.

Although volcanic ash is very dangerous to jet airplanes, melting into glass by the heat and possibly acting as a sandblaster, damaging not only delicate mechanical parts but also the windshield to the point that the pilot will not be able to see. In the past, at least during three recorded incidents jumbo planes had all their engines shut down after flying into a a cloud of ash, becoming overweight gliders with no airport within range. In each case a rapid descent to clean air enabled restarting some of the engines and made it possible for the planes to limp to safety, instead of an emergency landing on an ocean. Since the ash has no water content and the particles are tiny, ordinary radars don't pick them up and at nighttime there is no way of seeing such a cloud. Europeans had a good reason to err on the side of caution and close the airspace. Attached is a picture of a Finnish F-18 fighter jet with glass deposit damage on its engine, after a training mission in Lapland. This was before anyone was alerted of the danger approaching. The airspace over Northern Scandinavia was promptly closed, quickly followed by much of Europe. The flying ban has been widely criticized as overly cautious, but at least in my opinion it was better to play it safe than have lives in danger, literally.

The ash itself differs in its silicate content. The higher its concentration is, the lower the melting point and thus the more dangerous it becomes to jet engines. Luckily the Icelandic ash has less silicate that volcanoes in the Andes or Western North America, such as Mount St. Helens. Eyjafjallajökull's ash requires a temperature of over 1,200°C (2,200°F) for glass to form, whereas the American type and that from Pinatubo in the Philippines melts at less that 1,000°C (1,800°F), making it particularly dangerous for jet engines at cruising altitudes. Generally speaking the engines become hot enough for the Icelandic ash to form glass only during take-off.

Iceland may have another trick up its sleeve. In recorded history for 1,100 years or so, this volcano's eruptions have been followed by bigger ones from nearby Katla. That would teach the world that the little island-country can indeed be a major factor in global affairs. Of course we have to deal directly with Mother Nature, not the country's government. She makes all terror attacks and wars seem like small potatoes. Yes, there is a humbling lesson to be learned from this: we the humans really don't rule the world after all. Icelanders know Earth's power better than any of us. The eruption of the Laki fissure 1783-84 killed a quarter of the island's population and over a half of its domestic animals. Most died from fluoride poisoning, the result of breathing a deadly mixture of sulfur-dioxide and hydrofluoric acid gas. At least the enamel on their teeth became strong! The eruption had global consequences, causing sunlight to disappear in Europe and widespread famine. Some claim that the French Revolution was partially caused by the social unrest resulting from the events. In North America temperatures dropped by ten degrees and during the winter of 1784 the Mississippi river froze all the way down to New Orleans; part of the Gulf of Mexico was covered with ice as well.

When the two recent earthquakes in this hemisphere happened, experts pointed out global locations where the real big ones could take place. Southern Andes, Alaska, Kamchatka, Indonesia and our own Cascades are all waiting for nine-point-something quake to happen. The one in Haiti would not have done much damage in a modern Western city: the quake in Chile was 500 times more powerful. California's earthquakes are frequent but relatively small. Our home town, Seattle, faces a few catastrophic scenarios. I look at the 4,392-meter-high Mount Rainier daily and often wonder when it might decide to become active again. The last minor eruption was in the early 1800s and it has been a millennium since the last big one. Last year a volcano awakened in the Russian Far East after slumbering for 2,000 years, so what seem like an eternity to us is but a few seconds in Earth's history. Our mountain has so much ice and snow on it that mudflow resulting from an eruption would cause havoc in a large densely populated area. It could also upset the balance with the continental plates deep underground and trigger a massive earthquake. The latter could also happen without any help from Mt. Rainier, of course. The low-lying communities around the Puget Sound are also vulnerable to a tsunami. I sleep better knowing that we are too high up for such a wave to reach us. Any of these scenarios would totally paralyze the greater Seattle area and cause destruction of never-seen-before magnitude, at least for an American city.

It is fitting that this year's Earth Day was celebrated by Seattle's garbage collectors starting their strike.
Northern Lights at Eyjafjallajökull © Reuters
Damage to F-18 Hornet
© Finnish Defense Forces