The Big Silence

It has been like living in a science-fiction movie for the past few days. To re-cap, Mount Eyjafjallajökull, a volcano under a glacier in Iceland began erupting and sending ash into the stratosphere. The Jet-Stream has taken that ash and spread it across North-western European airspace, and the authorities have grounded all civil aviation in the affected area.

I happen to live about 10 miles away from Heathrow Airport and depending on wind direction either have planes joining the downwind traffic pattern to land or if they are taking off in my direction they are climbing out. In addition I am under the final approach for RAF Northolt which caters for a lot of business jet traffic. So every thirty seconds or so there is a plane somewhere in the vicinity. It the sky is clear, you can see planes stacked up waiting to join the circuit, whilst high overhead pass planes on trail as they cross the Atlantic heading into Europe.

With all those planes now grounded it is eerily quiet. Although I live in what is nominally a village, it is adjacent to a large town of some notoriety, within a couple of hundred yards of a main road, and not far away are the M4, M40 and M25. So not quite a rural idyll. However, just the removal of the plane noise has been remarkable, the birds seem to sing louder, the neighbours rows seem louder. It’s just a shame that the Church clock no longer chimes, nor bells rung or we’d get an (almost) authentic pre-industrial vibe.

And the sky! It is so clear. Not a cloud to be seen. Not a deep dark vaulting blue, but a pale (dusty?) sky-blue. How much is due to the weather system that is bringing the ash down, and how much is due to the lack of vapour trails being developed into clouds (alto-cirrus especially) remains to be seen.

Photo mosaic taken from my 'office' click for large version

Currently I am awaiting the arrival of my Sister’s dog, because my sister still thinks she is flying out to Italy or a long weekend in the middle of the week. Meanwhile my Uncle and Aunt are somewhere in France, being bussed back from a cultural holiday in Naples, when they should have flown back on Friday.

Apparently the last time this volcano went off it erupted for almost two years. It will be interesting to see at what point the authorities decide they have been over-cautious in closing down airspace. Several years ago, at a Geological Symposium we had a lecture from an engineer at Rolls Royce, entitled “Volcanic Eruptions and Jet Engines”. Basically (if I recall correctly) the ash is sucked into the engine and re-melted, and then solidifies on the turbine blades, which then become unbalanced and can break off. They came up with a design for hollow turbine blades which don’t run as hot, so don’t get the coating of volcanic glass. So whilst you may not get a catastrophic failure (and jets would only plummet out of the sky if they went though the thickest part of the ash-plume very close to Iceland), you would have to have a much greater regime of engine maintenance and overhaul.

At some point ‘the authorities’ are going to have to decide on re-opening airspace as the economic impact is being felt on a global scale. In Kenya, for instance, tons of food and flowers are rotting on warehouses and workers and farm labourers are being laid off.

And finally, in the grand scheme of things, even a brief study of geology reveals that this is really quite a small eruption, compared to say, the eruptions that created the Deccan Traps in India and caused the extinction of the Dinosaurs (No, the meteorite only finished off what had been going on for some time – don’t get me started on that one!) And the planet is long overdue a similar event.

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~ by @mmonyte on April 18, 2010.

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