Saturday, April 17, 2010

Ashes, ashes, we all fall down....

‘‘KLM 867 we have flame out all engines and we are descending now!’’

The airspace over northern Europe has been virtually shut down to commercial air traffic because of volcanic ash spewing from Iceland.

We get to practice real-time science now. How much do we know about volcanic ash?

We can tell what's in it. (Iceland has initiated a huge involuntary fluoridation program.)

We can look at past anecdotal evidence at what has happened when commercial jets fly into ash. In 1989 a Boeing 747 flew into an ash cloud over Alaska, and temporarily lost all 4 engines. KLM is still using that particular aircraft, so there's at least one plane we know should avoid the ash.

We know that the Eyjafjallajokull volcano has spewed ash for over a year in the past, way back in 1821.

We're still new at this predicting business, and even newer at this flying business. If nothing else, Eyjafjallajokull reminds us how little we know, and how little we can control.

I bet I'm not the only science teacher tickled that the world still pokes holes into our hubris.

The photo by the Associated Press.

Update: various airlines are taking practice runs at different altitudes to assess the damage to their aircraft.
Science in action!


John Spencer said...

Love this blog post. I was curious if you would have a take on this event.

doyle said...

Dear John,

My take varies with the breeze, of course, but here are some vague thoughts:

1) The universe works in geologic time, our culture (not all, but certainly ours) works in a tiny sliver of time and refuses to acknowledge that we're part of something incomprehensibly large.

2) A few human generations of time is brief, yet we ignore what happens even a generation ago. Iceland's volcanoes will spew ash. California will have a major quake. The Midwest will have a major drought. An asteroid will strike the Earth and cause big damage.

We act surprised at events that have occurred before, and are likely to occur again.

3) We are so enamored (and dependent) of our technology we've forgotten how to live a useful life.

4) Economies reliant on high tech services are more efficient in the short run, but will ultimately collapse under the weight of intricacy (and consumption they require. There is only so much petroleum we can burn, so much soil we can waste.

5) As far as religious thoughts, well, I do worry about folks presuming that natural events are acts of a willful God--I have no comprehension of the mystery of this whole thing I'm living, and I doubt anyone else has a good handle on it either.