Saturday, 17 April 2010

Volcanoes and economics

Paul Sweeney: We may have harnessed nature, but the last few days flight cancellations in Europe demonstrate that nature can assert itself very strongly. What if the eruptions continue? What if other volcanoes erupt? Iceland has many volcanoes and with the right winds……

How long will the eruption last, will it impact on the food supply and on the world's climate?

The problem with volcanic eruptions is that you really don't know what they're going to do.

Sally Sennert, a Smithsonian Institution volcano expert, says that the eruption could last for months, just as Eyjafjallajokull's previous one did back in 1821-23. But she said, "there's no telling how long the eruptions could last." This volcano is Eyjafjallajokull and its eruption of ash doesn't contain much sulphur, which is needed to generate the sulphuric acid droplets that could linger in the upper atmosphere and have a cooling effect on climate.

In 1991, Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, the second-largest eruption of the 20th century (much larger than Eyjafjallajokull), sent a sulfuric acid haze into the stratosphere, reducing global average temperatures about 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit over the following year

Back in 1783, Laki in Iceland erupted over an 8 month period during 1783-1784 from its fissure and the adjoining Grímsvötn volcano, pouring lava and also poisonous acid and sulphur clouds. These clouds killed over half of Iceland's livestock, leading to famine which in turn, killed a quarter of the population.
But it had a big impact in Europe too and some say it contributed to the French Revolution taking place. This was because it caused extremes in climate for several years with frosts in summer, droughts, clouds etc and led to food shortages all over Europe but particularly in France.

Ben Franklin wrote in 1784:

During several of the summer months of the year 1783, when the effect of the sun's rays to heat the earth in these northern regions should have been greater, there existed a constant fog over all Europe, and a great part of North America. This fog was of a permanent nature; it was dry, and the rays of the sun seemed to have little effect towards dissipating it, as they easily do a moist fog, arising from water. They were indeed rendered so faint in passing through it, that when collected in the focus of a burning glass they would scarce kindle brown paper. Of course, their summer effect in heating the Earth was exceedingly diminished. Hence the surface was early frozen. Hence the first snows remained on it unmelted, and received continual additions. Hence the air was more chilled, and the winds more severely cold. Hence perhaps the winter of 1783-4 was more severe than any that had happened for many years.

The cause of this universal fog is not yet ascertained... or whether it was the vast quantity of smoke, long continuing, to issue during the summer from Hecla in Iceland, (it was Laki) and that other volcano which arose out of the sea near that island, which smoke might be spread by various winds, over the northern part of the world, is yet uncertain.

What if this volcano continues to spew or if others erupt? We are have much better seed crops, farm systems, etc. than in 1783, but in the end, we need the sun to generate plant life.
The economic impact on the European aviation industry has already been dramatic (and on shipping in reverse), but if prolonged, it could have a bigger impact on agriculture and food prices. And this is on top of NAMA and the 20% collapse in national income (GNP) since 2007!


Gerard O'Neill said...

Yep, it's the end of the world as we know it. At least until the wind changes direction ...

Rory O'Farrell said...

I think this is an interesting experiment on how we can live without aeroplanes.

I hope to fly from Brussels next week, so this is a nuisance for me, but little more than that. I had reason to go to an Eurolines office. Queues were longer than normal, and some people going to Spain are in some bother (there is also a rail strike in France, so that is one less option for them). Overall life hasn't collapsed.

I think its an interesting experiment because as oil prices increase air travel will be less of an option. We will need to use the alternatives, such as ferries.

Regarding agriculture, so far I'm not worried about going hungry (I've enough rice stacked away to keep me going for a while), but the over-globalised nature of luxury food production will probably be affected. Exotic and out of season fruit delivered from exotic locations by air freight may begin to run out from the supermarkets. Is this such a bad thing? It should not affect the west so much. Personally I can wait until June to eat my strawberries. However it will affect producers in poorer countries.

paul sweeney said...

Gerard, it is lasting longer than we expected and all those volcanoes in Iceland could cause more trouble in the longer term. It is a good warning as Rory says and with oil prices inevitably rising ( I bought petrol today! wow!) we and our policy makers should take heed of this.

Damian said...

interesting item on BBC's radio 4 this morning about the plight of Kenyan vegetable and flower producers - products grown solely for export markets and employment which is now ultimately dependend on the global supply chain (and a resumption of flights)

Exotic it may be (mangetout and carnations in winter) but the industry also employs a large number of African workers whose meagre wages are ultimately linked to our markets - another case of developing world suffering disproportionately from our problems!

Nat O`Connor said...

The BBC has an interesting (and worrying) article on water use which shows how imports from developing countries use up much of their often limited supplies of drinkable water.

It's all yet another reminder that green economics is not just about carbon, it's about managing all the resources of a finite planet.

As for volcanos, along with earthquakes, viruses and everything else that threatens human comfort and existence, they are a reminder that the planet is not a passive pile of resources for our exploitation, but a complex, ever-changing system that we have to integrate our activities with.

Luke Metcalfe said...

There are dozens of volcanoes in Iceland as you can see from this map. Several have erupted in the past 10 years!

Joseph said...

I was struck by a 'letter' doing the rounds on the internet in the past couple of days, from the Finance Minister of Iceland to the PM's of the UK and Holland (re: money owed to them both).

In it, he claims that there is no letter 'C' in the Icelandic alphabet and instead of settling their demand in 'Cash' he has opted to settle it in 'ash'. Har, har.