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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Natural Disasters

The recent very powerful earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and Tibet demonstrate the power of nature to disrupt human activities. Hurricanes, tsunamis and ordinary seasonal flooding take their toll as well.

A more interesting natural event is the relatively modest eruption of the Unpronounceable Name (Eyjafjallajokul) volcano in Iceland. While flooding and toxic ash falls are a local problem for Icelanders, there would have been little further impact on the world of fifty years ago.

Today, however, our societies and economies rely heavily on the widespread availability of inexpensive air freight and passenger transportation.

The eruption has spread a wind driven cloud of volcanic ash across the British Isles and Northern Europe. Since airborne volcanic ash can cause significant damage to jet engines, including in-flight shutdowns, the result is an indefinite suspension of air travel from the rest of the world as well as within Northern Europe.

The last time that the [Unpronounceable Name] volcano erupted was in 1821. Then, the eruptions continued for two years. If that happens again, the damage to the world economy will be significant - all because we have come to rely excessively on one technology - air transport - without considering the possibility of failure or having a back up solution.

The immediate personal consequences resulting from travellers trapped far from home, or being forced to cancel important trips, are significant but, in the greater scheme of things, essentially trivial. In the medium term, the economic consequences, including damage to tourism, could be severe enough to initiate the second half of a double dip recession.

Airlines, already in poor financial condition, are losing money at an ever increasing rate. Although European companies operating trains and long distance buses will benefit - at least in the short term, they are unlikely to increase capacity on a permanent basis. Companies that own large cruise ships might divert them to provide trans-Atlantic passenger service but substituting a five day voyage for an eight hour flight results in a major loss of productivity. It will also impose significant additional direct costs to travelers.

Alternative solutions, as always, are expensive and the consequences, while unknown in detail, will certainly be serious.

Mother Nature 1 Human Technology 0

Again!

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