Chances Emerge from Erupting Volcano!

Human memory is not very long. Mother Earth has been in
existence some 3600 million years and Humankind a mere 2 million years. If we
look at this like a 24 hour clock, people have only populated Earth for about 48
seconds and we have learned to build our expectations and lives and
socio-economic systems based on about half a second of relative time. Looking at
it this way, we do not seem to be on a very sure footing as we go about
organizing our living and working environment and assessing the risk of our
current patterns of behavior. We assume that the planet Earth is by and large
going to stay the shape it is and going to play ball with us in the
foreseeable future with the exception of some bad weather such as excessive snow
falls or flooding of waterways. Maybe we need to think again and reassess our
whole risk management practices? Or should we just make the best of what we

Austrian family Schmidt was visiting relatives in the United
States these past 14 days. They were expecting to fly back to the Alpine
Republic to enjoy the spring that has descended on Vienna and its environs.
Mother Nature put paid to their plans. Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull blew for the first time since 1821
spewing vast clouds of boulders and dust particles into the atmosphere where
modern day jet liners normally ferry passengers and goods to and from North
America Europe stranding the bewildered family Schmidt and thousands of others
on the wrong side of the Atlantic. At Washington DC Airport, “We were treated to
fizzy drinks and pretzels and given an emergency number by overwhelmed Lufthansa
ground staff” said Werner Schmidt. Lufthansa who jointly facilitate Austrian as
part of the Star Alliance offered to rebook their flights and pointed to the
Dulles airport’s information desks manned by mature staff to organize
accommodation. “We can offer you accommodation at our local hotels for
discounted rates. This is an “Act of God” and the airlines are not taking up the
bill” announced a Lufthansa staff member. Rooms were reduced to US$ 65 per
person exclusive of taxes like at the Double Tree Hotel at Sterling, Dulles
Virginia, close to Washington’s international airport. The Schmidts were
overawed with the Double Tree. “We are simply amazed at the service here!” The
Double Tree opened just 2 days prior to the flight chaos and had to adapt
immediately to the ensuing situation. “The attitude here at Double Tree has
helped us tremendously” commented David Charles from Somerset, England who was
also at the Double Tree with his family stranded in Washington following a
family vacation in Florida. “I am self employed and I am not sure how long I can
afford this forced stay. My insurance will not be covering this either,”
explained Charles. Austrian businessman Johann Morgenstern returning from the
SAE World Congress at Detroit and also stranded at Washington DC said, “My
company has been informed and they will cover my expenses, but I am not sure how
sustainable this is going to be. I heard that the last time this volcano erupted
in the 19th century it lasted 2 years. What are we going to do then?
Businesses are simply not going to be able to absorb this for very long at all.”
Morgenstern’s immediate problem was his belongings. “I was at the end of a 5 day
business trip and I have little spare clothes and the hotel has no laundry
facilities right now. Furthermore, my suitcase is also stranded in between
planes as it was checked in to Vienna and I can’t reclaim it!” Morgenstern was
also philosophical, “I am divorced with 2 beautiful daughters.  At one point I
had thoughts that I would not be easily able to see them again. At least I have
SKYPE and Facebook to keep in contact!” Morgenstern had a 6 day extended stay in
Washington before returning on OS 094 to Vienna Thursday night.

At Washington the Hotel Double Tree, Sterling, in Loudon
County, Dulles came to the rescue allowing stranded guests from Europe to take
their airport shuttle bus to the local shopping mall and arcades to do fresh
laundry. African American shuttle bus driver Marlyne was such a star, she even
offered to launder clothes as a kind gesture. “We all know you guys have an
exceptional circumstance and we just wanna help you the best I can”. This
sterling attitude in Sterling made this unexpected circumstance in far off
Iceland just bearable.

But it has thrown up all sorts of questions:

Who foots the bill? Why is this kind of “Act of God” exempt
from insurance policies? Are we prepared for further natural disaster which for
all intents and purposes are in geological history the norm and we should not as
humans be surprised that this kind of disruption will occur.

There are annually 500 000 thousand earthquakes recorded.
Half a million tremors every year, and the number is not getting any more or
less each year. Some are of greater magnitude than others. The difference in the
modern World is that population has increased and the onset of mass
communications allows the immediacy of journalism to bring Mother Earth’s
spectacular seismic activities into the living room or on the twitter blogs
across the globe. We are all affected by Haiti, China and Icelandic earth
movements continuously. San Francisco has been expecting the “Big One” for some
time. It’s going to come sooner or later. We have already been given warnings in
modern history too of seismic activities and especially volcanoes such as Mount
Pinatubo in the Philippines which blew plumes of volcanic ash up to 47000 feet
which would devastate air travel if on a main air routes. Back in the
19th century the volcano Krakatau, made commonly famous by the film
“Krakatau East of Java”, although it actually West of Java, exploded causing so
much dust which affected the Earth’s atmosphere for several years.  Such an
eruption would impact immensely on World air travel not just the one route
between North America and Europe.

Our current socio-economic patterns have largely formed due
to history. The opening up of the Americas starting with the Pilgrim fathers a
few hundred years ago has led to a significant network of trade and
communications across the Atlantic which transgresses one of the World’s most
active volcanic zones. From the Northern Atlantic, all the way down to the
Southern Atlantic there is a line of volcanoes mostly hidden from the human eye
as they lie deep below the ocean blue.

Our pilgrim fathers and their successors right up until the
Second World War relied virtually entirely on shipping as a means of
transporting people and goods from one side on “The Pond” to the other with only
storms, icebergs and enemy submarines offering any serious impediment to free
and continuous travel. The last 70 years have seen the emergence of air
transport and the reality is that our flight routes due to the Earth’s shape
mean that the shortest route takes us over the North Atlantic airspace which we
also share with the permanently volcanically active Iceland. Our current
dependence on the flight routes is not compatible with Mother Nature and the
dynamics of seismic activity.

In the 1960s a new island was born in the Atlantic, caused by
an under seas volcanic eruption exactly in the zone of the current volcanic
eruption. That island is now known as Surtsey and is already inhabited with
birds and has been pollinated. The fact is, as every school child learns in
Geography lessons, we are living precariously on a very thin crust covering
molten magna and our Earth plates are continuously moving around. The pressure
needs to be released now and then and that cause earthquakes and volcanoes. It
also is the root cause of our spectacular mountain ranges such as the Andes,
Himalayas, The Rockies and the Alps. We live on a fragile dynamic planet and
need to respect these dynamics in our risk assessment.

I was invited by Nella Hengstler, the Austrian Trade
Commissioner at Washington, whose normal tasks are facilitating Austrian
interests with the World Bank and American State Departments on behalf of
Austrian businesses especially at the Development Bank level. “Although this has
been quite a spectacular event and many of my own guests visiting the World Bank
have been delayed, the Austrian Embassy and Consulate has had virtually no calls
for assistance from Austrian citizens as a direct consequence. We simply have no
idea as yet what the consequences of this eruption are having on trade between
Austria, the EU and America. We do have contingency plans for specific events
such as war and we have a handbook to refer to. But I am unaware that volcanoes
are part of this. If thousands of people are stranded the governments will have
to work out a strategy for many things including employment. If there is a
future prolonged situation, the US State Department and European Union would
have to consider what to do.”

Flights are returning to normal after about a week of
excessive delays which forced the closure of all northern Europe’s major
airports. In 1821, the Icelandic volcano last erupted and this indeed lasted 2
years.  But that was a time when air travel was still on the drawing board of
Leonardo Da Vinci and Wilber Wright had not even been heard of. We now rely on
this northern route, but Mother Nature and especially the Icelandic fault has no
respect for British Airways, AUA, and Air France etc. Volcanoes blow when they
choose to. The disruption this time was limited explained an Austrian Airlines
pilot at Vienna’s Schwechat airport, “The cloud of dust was only at 200 (20 000
feet or approx 6000 m) and we fly at 35-37000 feet (10-11 000 m) and so it was
possible for us to resume normal flying patters across the Atlantic. If the dust
and the glass particles which cause the troubles in our engines reach our
cruising altitude, then we have a problem.”


Risk management seems to be the only sensible way forward. We
need to do several things like insuring against such natural disasters, working
on technological improvements so that aircraft can withstand greater levels of
dust particles or even embrace the concept of using rockets and trajectories to
shoot passengers into orbit and delivering them back to designated landing
sites. And we mustn’t forget that our forefathers like the Vikings and
Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Perhaps we need to look at faster
water transport although the water resistance will certainly slow down all
transport methods considerably. Speeds over water considering the waves and
weather conditions could never easily reach those of the modern

Airlines such as Austrian put on a brave face and have
absorbed a heavy financial blow due to the volcano in Iceland, but their staff
and our American friends, like the support staff at Dulles International Airport
and the award winning for top attitude Hotel Double Tree at Sterling, Dulles
made the experience an enlightenment and has done much to bring people together
and forge new friendships and respect. Georgia Graves of the Loudon County
Board, was upbeat, “We are pleased to welcome so many people to our county and
its brought entrepreneurs together and exchanges of ideas that we did not
expect.” Crisis is a chance as the Confucius proverb says and in this case it
could well be as Chinese investors based at Dulles, Virginia, Austrian Business
facilitators and American Entrepreneurs exchanged ideas and have seized the
moment to explore business propositions. “We are very interested in bringing
high quality Austrian products like the famous Viennese pastries and World
famous breads to the States”, said Georgia Graves. Already, companies such as
the famous Viennese confectioners AIDA are involved and plans are underway to
receive a delegation from Loudon in Austria to lay foundations to future
collaboration. This is American dynamism at its best and the Alpine Republic can
benefit enormously from this entrepreneurial spirit.

Changing seismic activities evolve new opportunities and we
need to reassess the risk. Virginia is a geologically stable zone and maybe we
should be heading there?

By John Morris