The Eyjafjallajökull opportunity

Written By: - Date published: 12:53 am, April 19th, 2010 - 48 comments
Categories: climate change, International, public transport - Tags:

As I’m sure everyone already knows, Europe is now in the fourth day of an extraordinary paralysis of air travel caused by the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland. We haven’t seen anything like this since the grounding of (almost) all flights in America following 9/11. Hundreds of thousands of passengers have been affected, a large proportion left stranded by cancelled flights.

Contrary to early hopeful predictions, there is no immediate end in sight. At time of writing the front page of Newsroom leads: “TRAVEL CRISIS: New Ash Plume – The global air travel crisis is deepening with latest satellite imagery showing a new ash plume spreading southwards from Iceland as large swathes of European air space remains closed”. The Guardian is warning that “Volcanic ash cloud travel chaos could last all week”. The New York Times sums up:

Britain’s Met Office meteorological agency said that the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano was continuing as of early Sunday morning ‘and possibly intensifying,’ with the ash plume rising to 30,000 feet. …

While the closing of the airways has already laid waste to the immediate plans and business of industry, the arts and world leaders, the possibility that it could drag on for days, if not weeks, is raising concerns about the longer term consequences for public health, military operations and the world economy.

The disaster is estimated to be costing airlines $200 million a day, but the economic damage will roll through to farms, retail establishments and nearly any other business that depends on air cargo shipments. Fresh produce will spoil, and supermarkets in Europe, used to year-round supplies, will begin to run out.

But unless flights are disrupted for weeks, threatening factories’ supply chains, economists do not think the crisis will significantly affect gross domestic product. ‘If it really drags on another week that could be really serious,’ said Peter Westaway, chief economist for Europe at the Nomura investment bank. The air travel shutdown could affect productivity, he said, if hundreds of thousands of people miss work or are not able to do business because they are stuck in limbo somewhere.

It is worth pondering the implications of the fact that the last time that Eyjafjallajökull erupted it was active for over a year (December 1821 to January 1823). What if the current event lasts for a similar time? What if world air traffic is disrupted or unreliable for a year or more?

Whatever the eventual duration of the event, the huge impact of the disruption so far creates an interesting opportunity. Passengers have already worked it out. There are alternatives to air travel:

Stena Line, the ferry company, said it carried 5,000 extra passengers to Ireland, and P&O cross-Channel ferries said they were fully booked until Monday. Every Eurostar train was full yesterday, carrying more than 46,000 passengers. Network Rail had cancelled some engineering works to allow train operators to run more services over the weekend, particularly on the east and west coast main lines and on routes to the channel ports.

In the medium term, air travel as currently conducted is doomed by peak oil. So now is the time to start building the capacity of the alternatives. Rail travel is much more fuel efficient (per passenger or unit of cargo) than air travel, and consequently also has (after initial infrastructure costs) a much lower carbon footprint: “Eurostar, the high-speed train service that connects London with Paris and Brussels, advertises a tenfold reduction in each traveler’s carbon footprint by comparison with an airplane trip over similar distances”. According to this academic study:

A comparison of the marginal values of particular burdens/emissions and their costs (externalities) … [has] shown that significant mitigation of the impacts and savings of costs could be achieved by substitution of air passenger transport by high-speed rail.

Now is the time for European leaders to turn the frustration of stranded air travellers into a constructive mood for change. The Eyjafjallajökull crisis is also the Eyjafjallajökull opportunity for rail. Now is the time for huge investment in rail infrastructure and other preparations for the end of the commercial aeroplane. Now, before peak oil makes the current disruptions look like a picnic in the park.

48 comments on “The Eyjafjallajökull opportunity ”

  1. Luxated 1

    I agree with the basic premise here, that rail infrastructure needs to be developed and improved to replace a lot of current air travel. Europe is of course ideally placed to learn from this event and thankfully most (Western) European nations have fairly well developed networks already. Normally I’d mention something about NZ learning from what is happening in Europe but with the Nats in power I feel like I’m just pissing in the wind.

    I do however disagree that air travel will disappear, there are a number of reasons for this:

    1) Air transport produces a fraction of the carbon emissions that road transport does (in total). Although there is concern that the altitude of the aircraft having an effect I would think that the political pressure will focus on the headline figures.

    2) Continued investment in alternative fuel sources (mainly biofuel at this stage) and fuel consumption improvements. Unlike the car industry there is a very strong push from the clients (airlines) to decrease fuel use as it dramatically decreases their costs.

    3) Impracticality of ship or rail to certain locations, either too difficult or too slow.

    To quickly sum up, while we may well (and should) see a drop in the amount of air travel undertaken I do not see it consigned to history any time in the foreseeable future.

    Eyjafjallajökull: Now I know why Icelandic is considered to be so difficult!

    • r0b 1.1

      To quickly sum up, while we may well (and should) see a drop in the amount of air travel undertaken I do not see it consigned to history any time in the foreseeable future.

      I quite agree. I was careful in the post to talk about the decline of the aeroplane, not air travel. I think we’ll see the rise of the airship to replace travel over water. But travel over land should all be rail.

      Eyjafjallajökull: Now I know why Icelandic is considered to be so difficult!

      Glorious isn’t it. Is there any recorded case of a (non Icelandic) presenter saying it on air? Everyone just says “the eruption in Iceland” or similar. Whimps!

      • Lew 1.1.1

        I think the redoubtable Nicola Wright — she of the ability to pronounce almost anything — gave it a fair crack on NatRad late last week.

        L

      • Peter Williams managed last week in an episode of Breakfast I caught some of.

        Though I don’t really see why more can’t manage it. Five syllables, each reasonably easy to say (the most complicated being fyut). Get someone in the know to say it slowly, and play it on loop a dozen times. You might not sound like a native-speaker, and it might be a little laboured, but Deborah Coddington will like you =)

    • Marty G 1.2

      Eyjafjallajökull = island mountain glacier. seems like it’s a bit more efficient than english 😉

  2. illuminatedtiger 3

    Just switched over to Breakfast after getting tired of the TVNZ7 presenters inability to use the auto queue and was pretty shocked about some of the feedback:

    “Who cares about European regulation? Air New Zealand don’t come under their jurisdiction and should be able to takeoff and land at will”

    Don’t you just love how quickly tories are to lose their grasp on reality…

    • QoT 3.1

      Oh sweet Jesus. I watch a lot of Air Crash Investigation. I am now filled with such horror I may need to read some HP Lovecraft to settle down.

      Captcha: sequences – EXACTLY.

  3. Lew 4

    It’s a bit frightening how dependent the world is on air travel — such that the Merkel and Sarkozy wouldn’t make five-hour and fourteen-hour trips by road (respectively from Berlin and Paris) to the Polish president’s state funeral. Some of those attitudes are going to have to change, I think. Anand Satyanand had a decent excuse; but not those two.

    I agree with Luxated; there’s no prospect of air travel being replaced as the predominant mode of medium-long distance transport. If this persists, what we may see is adaptation of air travel technology and norms to this new reality — commercial aircraft flying at much lower or higher altitudes; a change in the types of aircraft being used, etc. This will dramatically decrease the number of flights available, and increase the cost of such flights as are available, probably driving a lot of people and freight to other transportation means, especially for shortish flights — so the sorts of developments r0b mentions are still necessary.

    But I think the most serious outcome if this looks like persisting is that Western Europe will suffer as an economic and diplomatic centre. The cost of doing business there, and getting goods to and from there in a timely fashion, will simply be higher than next-best alternatives, and companies and industries which were already somewhat marginal will begin to operate elsewhere — perhaps relocating to the Subcontinent, China or Eastern Europe. That’s a very long-term thing.

    L

    • ghostwhowalksnz 4.1

      Merkel was stuck in Italy and would be taking a long bus trip just to get back to Germany

      • Marty G 4.1.1

        would have thought a big german BMW could have got her there quick smart… or the train

        • Lew 4.1.1.1

          Yeah. If John Cleese can get home from Oslo, you’d think the leader of a major regional power could figure something out.

          L

  4. jcuknz 5

    What I don’t understand is why it is permitted to cancel the flights …. if it was a military exercise I’m sure the planes would fly to the airport still open for traffic and land transport take over from there. Maybe if the volcano and winds continue to be uncooperative this will happen. The organisations do seem to be rather sluggish and lacking in enterprise.

    • Lew 5.1

      jcuknz, what part of “planes which fly through this shit fall out of the sky” is unclear to you?

      L

      • Marty G 5.1.1

        lew. you used a two syllable word there. be fair on the guy.

        personally, i am surprised that a relatively small eruption could create a density of ash over such a huge area that would be dangerous. Some of the airlines have taken test flights and are checking the results but seem positive on first look.

        passenger jets have flamed out (ie their engines stopped working) in the past due to volcanic ash.

        • QoT 5.1.1.1

          Not to mention the windshield can be so blasted that pilots essentially lose all visibility.

          • Rich 5.1.1.1.1

            I actually thought Holmes’ copy on that subject was quite interesting and informative.

            A bit of a first – I guess aerial dicing with death is his special subject.

  5. Cnr Joe 6

    Ahh, my childhood dream of airships carrying freight – mainly…Now I hear it around..

  6. Eyjafjallajökull’s eruptions (don’t you love copy and paste) if they carry on for a period of time will cause considerable cooling in the Northern Hemisphere through the stopping of sunlight hitting the ground.

    No doubt our friends on the lunatic right will claim indignantly that any such reduction is conclusive proof that climate change is not occurring and is in fact a fraud.

  7. vto 8

    Well isn’t it in December 2012 that the planets line up causing a ‘tidal’ effect on the molten lava under our thin crust leading to many more volcanoes playing up like this?

    We shouldn’t be so smug – we of course are the ones loaded up with volcanoes after all… do do do do…

  8. Bored 9

    Couple of things to note:

    1. Ship and train travel may take a while but you can take time to relax and look around……so much nicer especially if you dont fall out of the sky from 10,000 meters spliuttering volcanic ash.
    2. Icelands volcano is just a baby compared to Taupo,if that went up it would really put the kibbosh on air travel world wide, big time, and when the air clears a new land would emerge.

    My point is that we have very complex systems with many single points of failure. These are easily interrupted by natural events, the volcano is teaching us a lesson in what happens when we put too many eggs in one basket in the name of efficiency, modernity, technology etc.

  9. Evidence-Based Practice 10

    What would happen if one of our volcanoes erupted to this extent (quite plausible considering our geological history). Say just before the rugby world cup?
    Bring back sailing ships now! We also need more effective public transport like trains.

    [Captcha: Chances]

  10. Bill 11

    Who needs high speed air travel? People or business?

    I’m suggesting that business needs and demands high speed air travel and it is this that will ensure that no development of rail or any other mode of travel will be anything beyond a short term quick fix project.

    Airlines subsidies will increase….they will be bailed by us just as the banks were.

    Meanwhile, I suspect I am one of a silent majority who would rather live in a slower world of Zeppelins anyway. Dreaming is free…

  11. Ianmac 12

    The pattern amongst business and political leaders has been to jump on a plane for face to face talks.
    The importance of reliable fast Broadband is to make such meetings redundant. Large screens, faultless sound, even 3D.
    For example the 40 World Leaders meeting recently about nuclear matters, could have each leader meet from their own offices. They could be seen and heard. The only things missing would be expense, air poluution, and being actually touched by you know who.
    It will happen and I expect there are some such meetings going on right now.

    • Bill 12.1

      “The only things missing would be expense, air poluution, and being actually touched by you know who”……and opportunities for back room dealing and threatening or bribing and talking ‘off the record’…the nods the winks and the general fawning to the big cock in the room…. the photo ops and spinning of the perception that individuals possessing great intellect are at work on problems of the world as opposed to the muddled reality of armies of loyal diplomats, acquiescent bureaucrats and international financial institutions with far reaching hands shoved up the rectums of the domestically generated puppets who are pushed to the fore for our delectation and titillation.

      Doesn’t lend itself to video conferencing that.

      • Ianmac 12.1.1

        I take it, I think, that you are agreeing that video-conferencing meetings instead of travelling, would be a very good thing then Bill?

  12. Fisiani 13

    Alaska is close to Russia (remember Palin’s comments.) There are several islands between Russia and Alaska. Imagine a rail/ road tunnel connecting Asia with North America. Then you could take a train from Glasgow to New York or vice versa via the Channel Tunnel and the Trans Siberian railway. Bet it would be opposed by the Greens. Every step of progress is opposed by the Greens.

    • RedLogix 13.1

      Every step of progress is opposed by the Greens.

      I’m in no mood for this kind of medacious crap from Tory dogs this morning. You are a brain dead lying arse … fuck off back to the sewer.

    • “Then you could take a train from Glasgow to New York or vice versa via the Channel Tunnel and the Trans Siberian railway.”

      And travel 20000 kms getting there by rail when Glasgow and New York are only 2500 kms apart by ship across the Atlantic Ocean. Two words for ya, Fisi. Atlas. Education.

  13. RedLogix 14

    Slightly tangential, but in the meantime our own rail system continues to be run down. Last weekend for instance while work was being done on the main trunk line between Palmerston and Wgtn, about ten freight trains were sent down the now little used line between Woodville and Featherston. This was a good thing as it’s useful to have some diversity in any system and having the line available to use was certainly better than not having it.

    But here is the kicker. The bridges on this line are now all over 80 yrs old. Most are still old wooden trestle designs, some propped up with extra stacks of buttressing timbers at each end. You have to picture this: your driving 190 tonnes of loco (two DFB’s) and on approaching these bridges you button off completely and coast over under no power at less than walking speed.

    Get it?

    And because of the potential for damage, the normal Wairarapa line passenger service has to go over all the bridges at reduced speed until an engineer inspects them later that week.

    This is shameful. Asking people to drive over bridges with a thousand tonnes of freight at walking speed because there is a real risk damn thing might collapse. And all the while Joyce spends billions of useless fracking holiday motorways and roadworks that are nothing but a subsidy to the trucking industry that has him in it’s pocket.

    • Bored 14.1

      Red, I am appalled, suppose when a train goes down the gully alongside the man checking the bridge it will be put down to user error.

  14. Hilary 15

    Trains making a comeback in the US supported by Obama. We could too.

    http://www.stuff.co.nz/travel/international/3596318/Fed-up-flyers-turn-to-trains

  15. Zaphod Beeblebrox 16

    Haven’t the Chinese talked about a Beijing-London hi speed train? You could connect up dozens of countries.

  16. jcuknz 17

    Lew / Marty G …. your sarcasm is un worthy of you normally sensible and intelligent writers and you should read what I wrote properly before shooting off your rudeness. I did not suggest that planes should be flying through the ash clouds, although subsequently we find that to a degree this is possible and apparently safe from the test flights undertaken recently, but rather that airlines continued to fly to the edge of the affected area …. Spain, Turkey, Ukraine perhaps, from where and to where people would travel by surface transport. I assume that the volcano is quite likely to continue spewing ash for several years and with the normal average probability the wind will blow them south east rather than north east to flow over the UK and adjacent countries.
    It seems to me that the authorities were very quick to say ‘NO’ without organising an alternative, which was the crux of my earlier post. There is also the concern that the decision was based on theoretical rather than practical evidence with the ‘safety’ angle being the excuse by timid left wing [ most likely] bureaucrats.

  17. arch 18

    labour policy and greenpolicy and other party/s have used carbon footprint. it/s been fed to us all cut your driving by 5 miles aday take less flights use less electric icould go on. and i will tax 4×4 cars fuel hikes to bleed us dry. well now the price must have been paid in full no flights no cars going to airports etc etc our footprint must be shiny clean

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