Monday, April 19, 2010

Send cash - not ash

Disgusting – the word a farmer just interviewed on the news used to describe the black ash raining down on the farms and fields below the Eyjafjallajökull glacier which has now erupted for five days. The footage was shot from within a car that seemed to have fallen into a deep tar pit, but was merely parked at the side of a road, waiting for a bad bout of the black precipitation to pass. Other images that followed were also in full agreement. Disgusting.

As I believe most people already know about the horrible effects this eruption has had on aviation in northern Europe I am not going to dwell on this side of the disaster. However, it should be noted that by not going into the details of this I am not attempting to skirt over the plight of stranded passengers, many of whom must be missing important events in their personal life. I simply believe that the major news networks have already described this side of the story in much more and far better detail than I can from here. The title of the blog is however from abroad, the UK to be exact where the joke is that we misunderstood, they asked for cash, not ash. Now that that has been cleared up we can hopefully bring the neverending Icesave negotiations to a closure suiting both parties.

What I believe has not been as widely reported is the havoc that the volcano reaps upon it closest surroundings – turning day into night and green to grey. The ash is so light and its particles so tiny that it seems from photos to behave in part like rain and in part like fog. It creeps though any crevice and as it piles up on the ground it seeps up moisture and becomes a bit like semi-hardened concrete. Photos of the area show an environment coated with gray sludge and farm and wild animals alike have all turned that same colour. Sheep, traditionally white look like the dusty stuff you see in attic corners in horror movies. Attempts have been made to herd all animals out of the area but this is hard because stampeding or even trotting disperses the extremely light ash and the animals disappear in a grey or black cloud.

Please take a lminute to look at the photographer’s site: Rakel Ósk Sigurðardóttir is an award winning photographer and has many more volcano photos posted on her website: in addition to various other photos showing Iceland and Icelanders in a less depressive state. I must mention that she is not my sister, nor is the prime minister, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir my mother. However if they were related to me in this way, my press photos would look a lot better and I would get to skip security in airports. Damn shame.

Domesticated animals have one thing going for them though – they have owners who have a vented interest in them being safe and sound. This does not apply to their wild counterparts, which in the case of the Eyjafjalla area mostly consists of birds and the occasional fox. Farmers have reported birds flying into barns and garages to seek shelter and these are usually let be, aside from a raven which got into a sheep shed and had to be evacuated because it could not be trusted to curb his appetite in the mutton buffet sharing the shelter. The poor thing tried his best to escape the inevitable but was finally ejected into the black day providing it no bearings. One can only hope he found his way out of the suffocating cloud.

So who is responsible for this destruction and hardship? Is it an evil entity whose face is exposed in the aerial photo of the craters taken in at the beginning of the eruption? Hardly. But cool nonetheless. But whoever is behind this has something new in store for us. Right now the eruption is changing. Clumps of lava the size of SUVs are being plummeted into the air but no lava flow is visible. This is believed to occur because the crater sides are too high for the lava to escape in the regular, more quaint fashion, although like with all irrational natural occurrences, this may change at the drop of a hat. Ash is still being dispersed but is not reaching the same high altitudes as before and hopefully this means that European flights can go back to schedule. For the farmers and the animals in the volcano’s vicinity the horror is by no means over.

Oddly enough life in Reykajvík and its suburbs is as if nothing is going on. The sky is blue, the airports are open and we would not know that there is an eruption if not for the news. This might change if the prevailing winds change in the days to come. My daughter’s school sent out an e-mail with a document explaining what pupils were to do in case of ash fallout over the city. It was really confusing and I am nowhere nearer to knowing what to do regarding her education in such an occurrence. The directions were a full two pages, setting up two alert levels which were a bit ridiculous, one for the scenario where it is difficult to get to school and some children show up and others not, and the other where the situation was bad enough for the school to close. I found two pages a bit generous for the obvious and in most part useless information set forth and it did not help that it had been written for snowstorms and had drawings of kids in snowsuits flying away, caught by gales (see accompanying picture). No mention of respiratory or eye protection, just statements of the obvious: if extreme conditions prevail then A) some parents might choose to keep their kids at home and B) the school might be closed and then no one will attend, even the ones that parents make show up. The gist of it could have fit into the subject line: your kid, your responsibility.

But I cannot leave this subject without stepping onto the soapbox and bellowing doomsday. You see, the eruption at Eyjafjallajökull is not particularly big at all. Unfortunately there is more to come and it ain’t pretty. It might not be tomorrow and possibly not even this year but it will be soon. Everyone here, me included, hopes it will not be anything like the Laki eruption of 1793 where the volcanic rift from which the eruption formed was 25 km long – more than ten times the diameter of the crater at Eyjafjallajökull. In it 60% of Icelandic farm animals were killed or starved, as did 20% of the human population. The Danish parliament discussed moving the remaining 40.000 people to Denmark to save them from the misery. Thankfully this bill was not passed. Historically there is more, the Hekla eruption of 1947 spewed ash 25 km up into the air and ash fell to the ground in Sweden. This and many other eruptions in pretty recent history would have stopped air traffic over Europe for extended periods. But on the bright side, I am sure there is a committee being assembled as I type, to figure out a way to tackle this future problem. One can only hope they do not employ my daughter’s school officials to figure out a plan based on a two level alert system.

Yrsa - Monday


  1. If you think the school's system is confusing as well as useless, you should see the color-code levels of terrorist danger that the US government came up with after 9/11. No matter what the threat, they will never label it at the highest level because that would indicate Armageddon.

    A volcano in Iceland has brought 21st century life to the brink of chaos all over the world. Planes don't fly and the world stops.

    The situation has given bureaucrats the opportunity to prove that thinking is not a requirement for the job. One of the most enduring stories from World War II is the evacuation from Dunkirk. Over 300,000 Allied soldiers were trapped when the German army overran the coast between France and Belgium. A flotilla of small boats, fishing boats, pleasure boats, anything that could float, set off the bring the soldiers to England. Most were rescued, saved to fight another day.

    Over the weekend, group of English boat owners decided to use the same plan to bring people trapped in France by the ash back to Dover. Whether this plan was hatched after a few drinks at the yacht club we will never know. Some inflatable boats arrived in Calais, coming to the rescue. The French didn't look at it in quite the same way. The sailors didn't have the proper paperwork and were sent back while the would-be rescued waived from the quay. Instead the British Navy is going to do the job.


  2. Hi Yrsa,

    I've never seen anything like that in my life.
    The video was so eerie, it looked like it was the end of the world.
    I hope the recovery time for this disaster is quick.
    Good luck.

  3. Hello Yrsa

    This was really interesting and the photos and video really give a good look at things. On tv we seem to get the same pics over and over.

    Thanks again for dropping into the Nordic book discussion on Amazon. We enjoyed getting first-hand information from one of our favorite authors.

    It seems that I recall that you ride horses. Perhaps, even own your own, so I am curious about the horses. I'm always worrying about animals when I probably should be worrying about people!

    Best of luck to you and your family. You can never tell when those snowsuits will come in handy.

    from Jacquie

  4. Wow. From afar, it's hard not to see the beauty of this phenomenon. The "dirty thunderstorms" and billowing ask are quite amazing.

    But your take on life in the shadow of the volcano is quite compelling. Thank you for sharing this information, and I hope you will keep us updated as the ramifications become more and more apparent.


  5. To Beth: I am sure that the missing paperwork had something to do with the sailors not having permission to transport passengers, making the forced return trip (with passengers still on board) a farce. Beurocrats sometimes make my blood curdle. Funny thing that our president is under attack here for mentioning Katla in a BBC interview. This is said to be negative for the tourist trade and that he should instead have emphasised that people are doing everything they can to minimise eruption havoc. What exactly that is I have no idea but there is probably a committee somewhere working it out.

    To Susie: thanks for the well wishes, we are all hoping to wake up to the news telling us that the eruption is losing steam and will at some point. The sooner the better.

    To Jacquie: Glad you enjoyed the pictures - regarding the horses I am terrified of them, i.e. riding, but I love them as animals. Like you I have a soft spot for animals and sometimes it feels that there are so many to worry about people that the animals could use a few of us in their corner. In this eruption they are the ones hardest hit, no doubt about it. Finally it snowed today, not enough to stick but still. I will put off packing the snowsuits away for another couple of weeks.

    Hi Michele: I just wish I was better at copying newsclips from the TV here onto the blog, these show the slugde and the misery really well, not to mention the volcano itself. It just requires editing (removing awful bank news) and I have yet to learn how that is done. However the Boston Globe has a collection of photos from the eruption that is really, really good - shows a lot of different aspects of the event, some really touching. This is the link but you will probably have to copy it into your browser:

    all the best

  6. Yrsa --

    I'm so glad you're keeping your sense of humor -- I actually laughed out loud at the last few lines. The photos are unworldly -- especially the fiend's face and Rakel's shot of the horses fleeing the ash.

    All of us hope you're all going to come through this without too much drama, and those of us in California who are waiting for a 9-magnitude earthquake know how you all feel about the potential "big one."

  7. This was a wonderful post about a tragic event. I loved the up close and personal aspect as opposed to what we see and read in the official news. Maybe you should run for a spot on the school board :)

  8. Thanks so much for the inside story on this incredible phenomenon. The video is, well, I'll have to say awesome, because I can't think of a better word.

    This planet lets us know we're in control every once in a while.

  9. I received dramatic photos of lightening surrounding the eruption and I can make it out in the video.

    Icelandic horses aren't ordinary horses and Icelandic sheep aren't ordinary sheep, they are unique. Most important, Yrsa, Icelandic people aren't ordinary either.

  10. Leighton suggested (make that "urged") that I not miss your take on the tragedy. Was he ever right. Masterful piece. And don't worry about the raven, I'm sure he'll turn up in time for the Edgars next week.

  11. Hi Yrsa, thought you might like to know this post is being read by the kids in my daughters Year 6 class at school. They're studying recent natural disasters. Congratulations, your volcano qualifies...

  12. Hi everyone - thanks for the kind words, its good to know we have friends despite the mess my country (and a few of my countrymen) have made of everything recently.

    Hi Jeffrey - Say hi to the raven from me, I'm glad to know he made it!

    Hi Gary - I'm so happy to hear that the post is being used to teach kids, pass on my very best to your daughter and her friends.