What happens if Hekla erupts?
April 19, 2010 12:01 PM   Subscribe

The volcanic activity of this past week has revealed a significant weakness in our existing infrastructure. But what happens if Eyjafjallajokull's big sister Hekla erupts as it did in 1912? I am less interested in the most obvious impacts, but rather am fascinated by the unseen shifts that would have to occur in the background.

Would there be a shift from air back to ocean going vessels?

Would this drive up the price of certain kinds of fuel as opposed to others?

Would South America see a boost in tourism from the U.S. if Europe becomes inaccessible by air?

How do markets react to a natural disaster with no modern day analog?

Has the market already accounted for this risk and we don't know it yet?

Who are the winners and losers in this situation?
posted by ghostpony to Society & Culture (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Europe wouldn't necessarily become inaccessible. For example, even at the worst of the current problems, Southern Europe was available - rather than ocean liners, I'd imagine that we'd start flying in to the closest non-ashed airport, then taking trains the rest of the way. There are severe rail shortages right now, but if we were seriously looking at this disruption over a long period of time, we'd see a huge expansion of the number of cars & frequency of trains on the existing rail networks, and even a greater build-out of new lines. Still much cheaper and faster than ocean liners as transportation.
posted by Tomorrowful at 12:19 PM on April 19, 2010

it could be warmer outside if planes have to stay grounded for any substantial amount of time.
posted by nadawi at 12:22 PM on April 19, 2010

ChatFilter, but anyway...

Air travel would probably still dominate, but it wouldn't be direct to the destination. An American traveller might fly south of the ash to northern Africa, take a ferry across the Mediterranean, then get to their destination by rail. Or they might go over the pole to Eastern Europe (check out the shortest route from Chicago to Moscow).
posted by indyz at 12:28 PM on April 19, 2010

Think also about the effects of reduced European tourism in North America.
posted by galaksit at 12:31 PM on April 19, 2010

The 1883 eruption of Krakatoa could provide some insight. I have no idea whether an eruption would be of a similar scale, but global temps dropped by a degree or two and large parts of the globe experienced crop failures as a result.
posted by electroboy at 12:33 PM on April 19, 2010

Volcanic ash is a much shorter term problem than changes in infrastructure. By the time you had built new oceangoing transports to handle volumes of people similar to air traffic, the ash clouds would have dissipated.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 12:42 PM on April 19, 2010

If I recall correctly, Mt St Helen's affected the weather over the months that followed, which affected the wheat harvests etc. So there might be some agricultural fall out. Also, I heard that there are normally something like 24,000 flights per day in Europe, so I'm guessing some airlines might go under as a result of this, which will also have economic affects.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 12:48 PM on April 19, 2010

Lots of things being talked about in the UK:

- one of the big tour operators was on the radio saying that the company is losing a few million every day this goes on, through having to accommodate (for free) their stranded holidaymakers. If this goes on the tourist industry in this country is in deep trouble. The question on the UK side would be whether the government would bail out tourism in the same way as it bailed out the banks.

- on the other side, suppliers of things brought in by air freight can't get their goods to the UK: 5,000 workers have been laid off in Kenya already. The lack of predictability is a key problem; they could turn round and look for new markets, and find the air freight is back on by Friday. I think this is an issue in a lot of your re-orientation questions - we just don't know how long it's going to go on for.

Given the worst case scenario is of months, rather than years, your large-scale re-orientation isn't going to happen. What will happen is an extension of what's happening at the moment - using existing infrastructure to a greater capacity than it normally is (there are more trains running through the Channel tunnel, more ferry sailings across the Channel).
posted by Coobeastie at 1:34 PM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Slate's Explainer column thinks that the eruption won't affect the climate signficiantly, unless the eruption continues for a long time.
posted by electroboy at 1:36 PM on April 19, 2010

Also, grapes are air-freighted into the UK and I really like grapes, so in a very shallow way I'd consider myself a loser in this situation!
posted by Coobeastie at 1:36 PM on April 19, 2010

Thanks for all the replies.

I guess I was wondering what would happen in a worst case scenario if Hekla started pluming 10 times or more amounts of ash for months instead of weeks. I imagine this might start to effect a wider area of European and perhaps Asian airspace, while also effecting everything from climate to food availability.

Obviously you can't build new ships within a year, but you could repurpose the ones that have been idling off the coast of China because of the recession.

I just think that this possible event represents the first time in my lifetime (I'm 23) where accessibility and transportation would be limited significantly. Obviously I wasn't around during the oil embargo, so I don't know first hand how that challenged our movability or the cultural impacts it really had (or didn't as everybody seems to be driving SUVs still).

Can anybody think of other industries or sectors of society that would be drastically effected by a long term (>6 months) eruption?

b1tr0t, I guess what I am more interested in is how markets have reacted already. Are people hedging bets on diminished wheat yields, or a switch to road and ship based transport? I know that in order to prove any of this you would have to do some pretty serious econ/math crunching.

What I really want to see (and am fascinated by) are the glimpses of intelligence markets demonstrate when disasters occur even when it isn't obvious to the press or media (a good example would be Fisman and Miguel's chapter on the health of Indonesian dictators and market fluctuations in Economic Gangsters or this piece about how peace in Angola led to a sharp decrease in stock prices for major diamond firms that benefitted from the lack of competition caused by war). Obviously markets will still be based on supply and demand, but when a good (like airspace in Europe) is removed from the market place what replaces it?
posted by ghostpony at 1:55 PM on April 19, 2010

Also, is there a better place for this kind of question? Someone mentioned chatFilter and I just realized I have never checked out MetaTalk. Should this be moved over there?
posted by ghostpony at 1:59 PM on April 19, 2010

Further clarification, when I said Europe would become inaccessible I didn't mean it in the sense that they were totally cut off from the world by air. What I should have said is that if even 1/4 of all airports in Europe see a diminished ability to receive air traffic you have a significant problem. I doubt there is that much elasticity in regards to where these flights can come into and out of as I imagine most airports are already operating at pretty close to maximum capacity (although, to be honest, I don't have anything to back this assumption up). This might decrease the total amount of flights into and out of Europe, driving prices up and thereby making it inaccessible to those whose willingness to pay isn't as high as the increase in cost. Just imagine if 1/2 of all airports in Northern Europe saw a significant decrease in capacity.

I guess the real winners might be southern Europe (especially if Northerners experience a colder than usual summer that drives people south for sun).
posted by ghostpony at 2:10 PM on April 19, 2010

No, MetaTalk is not for chatfilter. Chatfilter means "there's not really an answer - go ahead and chat about it with friends but not on mefi". I don't think that applies here so much
posted by jacalata at 3:01 PM on April 19, 2010

Just to clarify, do you mean Hekla and not Katla? Eruptions in Hekla have not been connected to eruptions in Eyjafjallajökull, but those of Katla have. Also, Hekla erupted in 1913 and Katla in 1918, neither in 1912.
posted by Kattullus at 3:18 PM on April 19, 2010

My apologies about the the Hekla mistake. I read that it was Katla that has always followed but was distracted when I saw some twitter streams mention Hekla. And yes, I meant the Katla eruption in 1918.

I also just found this piece on the "best-guess scenarios" in regards to the impacts the current eruption might have.
posted by ghostpony at 3:45 PM on April 19, 2010

Also, this blog Eruptions seems to be the best source for science based information regarding the current vulcanism in Iceland.
posted by ghostpony at 3:52 PM on April 19, 2010

idling off the coast of China because of the recession.

Singapore != China. We're about 3-4 hours away from China.
posted by the cydonian at 5:15 AM on April 20, 2010

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