Mind & Matter


An Enduring "Disaster"

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Eruption from underneath Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull glacier. Photo by AFP/Getty Images.


For those of you unlucky enough to be stranded in a European airport right now, I thought I would delve into the fallout (pun intended) from the recent eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano.

The massive scale of disruption this particular incident has wreaked upon international travel is incredible. Unlike most other major natural disasters—such as hurricanes, earthquakes, or tsunamis—volcanic eruptions do not have predictable durations. One popular guess is that the volcanic ash cloud will dissipate within a week—but what if it ebbs and flows for many weeks, at a cost of 200 million USD each week? The economic effects could be painful, and our jet-setting population would be forced to seek other means of travel.

Travelers’ frustration with being grounded is understandable, especially when there are blue skies overhead. According to Sky News, however, aircraft exposed to volcanic ash in flight can experience partial or full engine power loss—equivalent to the danger of flying with iced wings. Former British Airways pilot Eric Moody experienced the negative effects of volcanic ash when he flew too close to an eruption near Java in 1982. According to Moody, "It was very frightening, all the engines stopped for 14 to 15 minutes and we didn’t know what was happening." Moody’s experience resulted in the establishment of Volcanic Ash Advisory Centers in many parts of the globe.

Now that airlines are running successful test flights in northern Europe, the million-dollar question is: exactly how clear must the skies be in order to ensure safe flying conditions?




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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.