I travelled to Iceland in 1986 at a time when work colleagues were very surprised by this choice of destination. The tourist industry was only lightly developed. There had been periods of strong inflation and the whole holiday was reassuringly expensive for its time. The air was very clear providing good photography opportunities. Although the trip included a drive close to a volcano, there were no actual eruptions.
Recent events have reminded us of the awesome power of Mother Nature. The eruptions of just one volcano in southern Iceland have shut down aviation activity across much of Western Europe. I cannot recall such a prolonged suspension of air operations, not even during 9/11 or the worst winter weather conditions.
It has been remarkable to look at a sky devoid of vapour trails and to listen for, but not hear, the sound of aircraft engines. In some respects, it would have been a good time to roll the cameras for an apocalyptic film such as 28 Days Later.
Superficially our atmosphere looks the same despite the presence of ash from Iceland but air quality measuring instruments will tell a different story. Similarly sunsets can show us that something is different. In any case, some caution from air transport authorities was absolutely right. Making the wrong call with public safety issues can have disastrous consequences.
The potential effect of volcanic ash was illustrated in the early 1980s when a British Airways 747 flying over Japan had all four engines shut down. It had to glide and fall more than 10,000 feet before the engines were restarted. The pilot showed great calmness and skill and was rightly lauded as a hero.
Of course Iceland has been in the news for other reasons beyond volcanic activity. It was a prominent victim of the economic crisis and more specifically of irresponsible banking. Depositors outside of Iceland were seriously affected and there have been lengthy discussions about repayment of the debt. Proposals include the repayment of a proportion of Iceland’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product) being paid to Britain over a period of years. Such initiatives have met with serious opposition from inside Iceland where people have been reluctant to pay out for the serious errors of the private banking sector.
Perhaps the most serious symbolic opposition has been from Mother Nature herself, providing the most emphatic answer to Iceland’s creditors. You can have ash not cash.
Councillor Bob Lanzer, Leader of Crawley Borough Council
21st April 2010