Clearing the skies
The eruption of the volcano in southern Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull glacier is one of those remarkable moments, like the destruction of the twin towers in New York or the fall of the Berlin Wall. The skies above London have been clear of aircraft for days and it is possible to hear the sound of birdsong: a timely reminder of just how much we have lost thanks to cheap air travel. Where I live the birds used to sing at night since they had given up trying to compete against the traffic and the roar of jet engines. We are also promised spectacular sunsets. Quite wonderful.

But it is not all good news. The World Health Organisation has warned people suffering from asthma to stay indoors and wear masks if they really have to go out. Are they going to have to do that for 18 months (the length of time the last major eruption lasted in 1821-23)?

The economic impact could be even worse. According to one of the most famous economic papers (written by Robert Fogel) the railways played a major role in America's development in the 19th century. Are the airlines playing a similar role in the global economy in the 21st century? If so the consequence of a prolonged shutdown of airports in northern Europe would be devastating. Coming so soon after the worst economic downturn since the 1930s with most economies at best in a fragile state of recovery, the consequences could be appalling-- especially if Governments set about reigning in public expenditure that was allowed to balloon as a Keynesian remedy to the destruction caused by the bursting of the American housing bubble.

Then there is the environmental impact. Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines is believed to have caused a 0.5°C drop in global temperatures as well as the depletion of atmospheric ozone, when it erupted in 1991.

Right now no-one knows how long this volcano will continue to erupt or how serious the impact will be. Even if it stops today, the affect will last a long time. For one thing it will take weeks to sort out the world's airlines and rescue passengers stranded far from home.

Some of the insurance companies have been throwing their hands up in horror and saying this it is not their fault but an act of God, presenting stranded passengers with the prospect of paying huge sums to get home. As a consequence I wonder if we will ever trust cheap flights again. So now that we know that it is riskier than we imagined, will we continue to dash across the globe in search of a few days of sun, sand and sea? Since we have seen that the skies can be cleared I'd certainly like to see perhaps a month a year in which air traffic is completely banned and all the London airports shut down. I believe there would be massive support for this idea, not least from the environmentalists who worry about air transport exacerbating climate change.

Posted by Jonathan Brind at 04:54