Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Can We Cope Without Aeroplanes? Eyjafjallajökull Puts Us to The Test

Since the Eyjafjallajökull volcano began calling the shots on the length of our holidays, it has challenged and tested the 21st century travel habits we have become accustomed to. Obsessed with quick breaks to far away places and reducing journey times to an absolute minimum, our dependence on air travel is something we couldn’t imagine living without…but we had to, and it we’re starting to get used to the idea that it’s something we may have to do so again in the future. How are we coping with this blow and how has Mother Nature responded to the changes?

Inevitably, the bulk of media coverage is concerned over how our holidays are effected, whether we will be compensated for our losses and the economic impacts on the aviation industry. The environmental consequences have not been ignored as such, but as data continues to be rigorously analysed and with the future activity of the volcano unknown, conclusive information seems hard to come by. However, many scientists propose that the positive impacts of grounded flights have far outweighed the negative effects of spewing ash.

So what happened again?
A volcano in south-west Iceland, which lies beneath the Eyjafjallajokull glacier has been active since March this year but only started to wreak havoc on our travel plans in mid April, when it sent an ash cloud 17000 meters high into our skies.

Flights were cancelled due to impaired visibility and concerns over fine volcanic shards clogging aeroplane jet engines. During the initial explosion, flight timetables were ruined for almost a week, passengers were stranded and some estimates put the cost to the airline industry at 250 million dollars per day. The closure of UK airports in April was thought to have affected around three million Brits

It’s all a load of Gas
Our atmosphere is made up of many, many gases, all vital to the functioning of the planet. Gases are naturally absorbed and expelled, ideally reaching a balanced point of exchange. Volcanic eruptions, for example, should form part of that natural cycle. The problem comes when higher levels of particular gases are artificially expelled. If the additional input is not able to be absorbed at a similar rate, the equilibrium is disrupted and we end up with an excess of said gases.

‘Global Warming’ is caused by the emission of ‘greenhouse gasses’, the bulk of which come from carbon dioxide (CO2) and is therefore widely thought to be the most significant contributor to this effect. CO2 is created by burning fuels such as oil, gas, diesel and petrol. Emissions have dramatically increased within the last 50-odd years which, funnily enough, coincide with the growing popularity in jet engine use and the launch of ‘jumbo jets’ in the 1970s. Thus, aeroplanes are repeatedly blamed, alongside industrial pollution and motor vehicles, for contributing to global temperature changes and the associated effects of melting ice, rising sea levels, changes to crop yields and extremes of weather.

Environmental and scientific publications alike are riddled with statistics, reminding us that our favourite form of transport is causing irreversible damage to our planet. Aviation, the fastest growing travel sector, is estimated to account for up to 3% of global warming from human activities.

UN climate experts warn that it’s not just carbon that may be altering global temperatures but that nitrogen oxides, soot and condensation trails, or ‘contrails’, made by aircraft exhausts may have up to four times as great an impact on the climate as carbon alone by trapping heat within the atmosphere.

It has previously been difficult for scientists to draw precise conclusions over the impact of jet fuel on world climates, as they are unable to compare current data with that of plane-free skies.

The April 2010 week long blanket ban in EU airspace provided such a chance. Experts had the opportunity to scrutinise satellite images and temperature records, in the hope of isolating any effect that a lack of aeroplanes has had. A similar opportunity was seized upon in 2001 with a reduction in US air-travel following the September 11 attacks. Studies conducted at the time revealed that, with the absence of condensation trails, we experienced larger than average fluctuations in daily temperatures.

However, the presence of volcanic toxins is not something common to the natural state of our atmosphere and therefore acts as a skew. David Travis of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater says that it’s difficult to separate volcanic ash pollution from existing industrial pollution making the event “more challenging to analyse". An additional factor, making it hard to draw valid conclusions is the increased level of motor-engine emissions, as more than the usual amount of cars and buses are on the roads, returning stranded passengers home.

What do the studies show?
In 2007 the European Environment Agency estimated that in 32 European nations, daily emissions of CO2 from aviation were around 510,000 tonnes. Durham University suggest that this fell by more than two thirds in the early days of the volcanic eruption this April, with carbon emissions as low as 150,000 tonnes per day, whilst other sources quoted even bigger reductions.
According to the Environmental Transport Association, by the fourth day of the flight ban, it could have prevented the emission around 2.8million tonnes of carbon dioxide.
Far from the volcanic ash posing a health threat, analysis of air quality around Gatwick and Heathrow by the London Air Quality Network , reported that the pollutants thought to cause respiratory problems had plunged.
Residents living in the flight paths of the UK’s busiest airports enjoyed a marked improvement in their quality of life as the noise pollution of jumbo jets swung to ‘zero’.

Is the Volcanic Ash harmful to us?
Concerns were aired over potential damage caused by the toxic gases being spewed out by the Icelandic volcano in terms of both environmental and human health impacts.
Comparisons have been made to Mount Pinatubo, in the Philippines, which last erupted in 1991. The eruption expelled around 42 million tonnes of Carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and was blamed for altering global temperatures by as much as 0.5 degrees centigrade.
Whilst some feared that Eyjafjallajökull could have a similar effect, Dr Bell of the University of Edinburgh, confirmed that in both a global and Icelandic context, the eruptions have been “minor”. Volcanic particles should be easily ‘washed out’, as the blasts have not been strong enough to send material into the stratosphere, an upper layer of the Earth's atmosphere, meaning that rain will clean out volcanic material from the atmosphere. "They'll basically just disappear from the atmosphere over a period of days" said Alan Robock, Professor of Environmental Sciences at Rutgers University.
With academics describing the eruption as a “minor cough”, we are assured that air quality has so far been largely unaffected and that it is very unlikely that there will be any lasting effect on our climate from the eruption itself.

The response to the challenge
May 2010 has already seen further disruption to our skies. Records show that the volcano has a history of ‘slow burning’, with the last eruption lasting for two years, from 1821 to 1823.
With this in mind, it seems likely that holiday makers may start to reconsider destination choices, modes of transport and the channels through which they book. The UK tourism industry is predicting more bookings than usual, as a combined response to both the economic downturn as well as concerns over volcanic disruption. With many UK tourism companies promoting domestic holidays as a result, we can expect greater use of the inelegant term, ‘staycation’.

Our perspectives are changing. With little choice, holiday makers forced into overland travel discovered that trains, buses and ferrys were not as painful as they may have imagined. Reclining in a sun-lounger whilst your children splash in the pool onboard the Bilbao to Portsmouth ferry is far more respectable than being squeezed onto a budget flight with your knees up around your eyes, whilst the baby behind you screams blue murder and the man next to you dribbles on your shoulder. People discovered that you can travel overland from Morocco to London in a few days and see a lot more of the world on your way. With many travelling through beautiful central Spain and the interior heartland of France, long-haulers may also have pondered whether twenty four hours in the air and two days of jet lag are really necessary.

So what will the future hold? More blanket bans? New designs of ash-capable jet engines? An end to air travel as we know it? No more greenhouse effect? Who knows, but the experience is certainly making us rethink ‘Can we cope without air travel?’

Photos from

Lucy's article was also posted by Responsible Travel

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