The Curious Case of Volcanic Ash and why nobody is doing anything about it

Now we've all learned something airlines have known for a long time: that volcanic ash is catastrophic, it sandblasts planes and shuts down jet engines. And you can't see it in the sky. That's the incredible thing. Looking up, the sky remains blue - with pretty white wisps of what seems innocuous vapour but could be deadly ash.

And so it was when, on a fine spring day, huge ash clouds billowed out of an Icelandic volcano whose name is unpronounceable and impossible to remember and were blown across Europe. We all read about the havoc caused in air traffic all over Europe and beyond, and I won't go over it here. To keep you updated on air traffic is the job of the media.

All I want to do here is make some comments about this - the Curious Case of Volcanic Ash.

First, the consequences of a stop in air travel like this one - 5 or 6 days so far, and who knows for how  long - were far worse than expected. It didn't merely ground some passengers. It grounded an incredible number of them: over 50,000 Americans were stranded in Europe and four times as many British citizens spread out around the globe couldn't get home. Similarly dismal statistics apply to the citizens of a dozen other countries.

Then there were the surprising - but if you stop to think about it - perfectly natural disruptions in European markets for tropical fruit and out-of-season vegetables. Europeans, with a rising standard of living, have started to behave just like Americans: they want asparagus, green beans, grapes and strawberries all year round - which means flying them in from Latin America and Africa where they are produced.   Kenya alone is losing an estimated US$ 2 million a day. And that means hardship for everyone in developing countries, including the rural poor who provide the manual labour to pick the produce and pack it.

However, politically, fruit and vegetable producers and distributors don't constitute a very strong lobby. Neither do passengers. The heavy weights who really got annoyed on the fifth day of stoppage imposed by Eurocontrol were (predictably) the airlines. Lufthansa sent up test flights, and I gather so did British Airways, with their planes coming back unscathed. Such tests didn't convince the authorities: after all, nobody knows where those clouds are. They can easily be confused with normal vapour. The test planes could have simply by-passed them.

Because that's another incredible fact that came out in this crisis: the shutdown of European air space was decreed not on the basis of scientific, verifiable facts, but on computer models. In other words: theoretical probabilities not hard facts. It's amazing how our Society is committed to mathematics and statistics rather than direct observation. The theory said there were risks - how risky nobody really knew - but there were some risks and so the decision was taken.

Nobody felt like taking any risks.

The "principle of precaution" is sancro-sanct in Europe. No politician nor any government or inter-governmental institution such as Eurocontrol would have dared to contravene the principle. Indeed, it is the same principle that has led to the overproduction of swine flu vaccine last winter. And the same principle that stops most European countries from allowing in genetically-modified cereals, vegetables or meat.

The precaution principle is Big Stuff - a real tyrant.

So should we ditch it? Of course not. One should not - not ever - put any life in danger, no matter how small the risk. It's not just a question of being politically correct, but morally correct.

Great. Are you impressed? I am not. I can't help but notice that when a stop in air traffic causes losses reportedly amounting to some 200 million Euros a day, the situation tends to change. Imperceptibly - but it does change. Airports across Europe were progressively re-opened.

Why? Remember, the airline lobby is powerful. They've even got national parliaments discussing the possibility of helping them with "emergency funding", claiming that this crisis is worse than what happened after 9/11 and American air space was closed...

Ok, that's a lot of political blah-blah but the threat of volcanic ash remains. There are over one hundred active volcanoes on this planet. Fortunately most do not threaten European air space, one of the most trafficked in the world.
But watching the gradual re-opening of air traffic, another disturbing fact emerged. European air space did not open smoothly, no, it hesitated, sputtered, and took time. Too much time. Because it's not easy, when there is no such thing as a Single European Sky and over two dozen countries are involved. Obviously a lot of consultation is required: it is much easier to close down the skies than re-open them. The EU Commission has been grumbling that's because no one has paid any attention to its Single European Sky proposal (made back in 2004). The Commission is probably right. Indeed, no one has paid any attention. Every country wants to hold on to every bit of national sovereignty it can, especially if it's up in the sky.

I bet that soon the whole crisis will be forgotten and the Single European Sky proposal will once more fall into oblivion. Until the next crisis...

But do we really have to live in this way, with an institutional mess and a lack of scientific data? Perhaps not. I came across an interesting story in the Italian press (the Stampa of 21 April). A few years ago, when Etna, Sicily's monster volcano and the biggest in Europe, spewed ashes for a whole month, the airport of Catania, Fontanarossa, had to be closed. That's not such a small airport (it averages 6 million passengers a year) but the problem passed largely unnoticed. Why? Sicilians themselves used the Palermo airport, two hours away from Catania, and most of the ashes was blown south, over Africa where there are practically no airports. Of course, if Etna wakes up again (as it is bound to), and blows its ashes up north, then another Icelandic-like disaster would hit Europe.

The Italians are well aware of this, and their "Protezione Civile", a government outfit tasked with disaster prevention and management, set up four months ago in Catania airport a special radar. It is reportedly a modified version of those used for meterological purposes and it is designed to monitor volcanic ashes in the atmosphere. I am no scientist, but I can easily imagine how the system would work. With the help of the radar, the idea is simple enough: identify ash-free corridors in the sky above the airport, allowing planes to land and take-off safely. In other words: direct observation as opposed to theory and computer models. It would mean monitoring volcanic ashes in real time - something that cannot be done now.

So why isn't the system in use everywhere in Europe? Because, according to the Protezione Civile, the radar in Catania is still experimental. It has to be tested and Etna, a notoriously fickle volcano, is not collaborating. For the moment it is fast asleep and not spewing any ash at all.

Do we really have to wait for Etna to wake up and send ashes all over Europe so we can test the system? Wouldn't it be better to set up this experimental radar somewhere in Northern Europe and test is out as soon as possible on the Icelandic ash clouds?

Where is European cooperation on this most important matter?

What do you think? Do join me in asking that something be done without wasting time any further!