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Can Europe Survive? Life after Katla…

Katla
Image via Wikipedia

The recent chaos surrounding the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland – with effects being felt globally in terms of significant financial losses, disruption to travellers, disruption to food supplies, and so on – needs to provoke some serious discussion as to what actions are needed to prevent even greater, and much longer-term, chaos in the event of a more significant eruption.

After all,  history has clearly shown that when Eyjafjallajökull erupts, it’s very much larger neighbour Katla is generally not far behind, and Katla is overdue for an eruption anyway.

While the size of eruptions can never be accurately forecast, the historical evidence shows that Katla’s eruption is likely to be at least ten times the size of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption – and quite possibly more. This could mean not only significant floods of fresh glacial-melt water into the sea (a volume equal to the combined flow of the Amazon, Mississippi, Nile and Yangtze rivers is estimated to have occurred following its 1755 eruption), but a column of ash rising 20km, or more, into the jet stream and being spread over a much greater part of the Northern Hemisphere.

History has already shown some of the worst effects from major volcanic eruptions in Iceland – that of Laki in 1783 resulted in famine across Western Europe, and as far south as Egypt, one of the longest and coldest winters on record in North America, and the death of tens of thousands of people from gas poisoning and famine. It was even linked to the start of the French Revolution, where the lack of food played a significant role.

Admittedly, these are somewhat extreme examples, but they show what is possible should Katla’s eruption be a big one – and almost all experts agree that with Katla, it’s not a question of “if” but of “when” it will erupt.

So, what are some of the possible effects of a big Katla eruption?

  • Air travel – the recent 6-day chaos would potentially be dwarfed by one that could last months. This would not only impact passengers, but freight, too. Tourism would certainly be impacted negatively, but so would food imports and general freight movement.
  • Agriculture – the impact of a prolonged cold spell would drastically affect crop production in Europe and, potentially, elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere. For Europe, this would just add to the difficulties faced by the lack of air transport to bring in fresh produce from elsewhere.
  • Power – of course, a lengthy period of exceptionally cold weather would push up power consumption dramatically. Could Europe cope with a prolonged extra demand for power for heating?
  • Wealth – potentially a significant shift in the wealth of Europe as the combination of food shortages, collapsing tourism, freight reduction and prolonged cold takes its toll. Where would this wealth go, and who would benefit?

Disturbingly, though, little attention seems to being paid to this, in spite of the lessons we’ve learnt from Eyjafjallajökull. And if it’s not Katla, how long before another significant eruption – perhaps in Iceland, or perhaps elsewhere (Yellowstone?)…

European, and other, governments need to get together as a matter of urgency on this: the planning for overcoming the potential problems is not something that can be done overnight in a reactive manner. Rather, they need to start work today on ways to reduce the reliance on current modes of air transport (could the airship make a comeback?), to find additional reliable power sources, determine ways to source sufficient food, and so on.

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