Monday, April 19, 2010

You Can't Fight Mother Nature

It is perhaps ironic, but a researcher in natural hazards, finds himself at the mercy of a natural hazard.  I am talking about the Iceland Volcano, which has not had any fatalities, but may prove fatal to some businesses in Europe, most notably, airlines and the travel industy.  Today is the fifth day of closed airspace over Europe.  I was supposed to be presenting research in Munich on Friday, travel to Bratislava for a Fulbright Lecture, then take the night train from Vienna to Zurich for another conference.  Well, let's just say that plans have changed, at least somewhat.  Munich and Bratislava were cancelled but I do plan to make it to Zurich, but by train, from Oslo.

This event is certainly a lesson for modern society.  The disruption in air travel has created absolute chaos in a number of areas.  Passenger travel is the obvious one, but for many there are alternatives, like my changing to a train, which is easy to do in Europe.  But there are other areas that will be hurt as well.  Delivery of goods, particularly perishable goods are in real trouble.  It has been very easy for urban areas to have fresh fruits and vegetables available year round.  We simply had them flown from warmer regions with lower labor costs.  But, without air service, that produce will rot in warehouses.  An event like this reminds us of how vulnerable that delivery system is.  The airline industry in Europe was in a precarious state to begin with.  For some airlines, the loss of business could be the last straw.  My cancelled flight was on SAS.  SAS announced that if the disruption continued into this week, which it has, they would begin laying off 2500 workers.  BBC is reporting that as an industry, airlines are losing $200 million a day.  This is day five, so that would make the costs to the airlines at $1 billion.  But, it occurs to me that a bigger concern to the airlines could be the realization on the part of travelers of the inherent uncertainty of flying.  The last time this volcano erupted was in 1821 and it erupted on and off for almost 2 years.  As travelers take this into consideration when making their plans, will it cause them to consider alternatives, like ferries and the train?  Will it cause travelers from other continents, like North America to stay home rather than taking the risk of being stuck across an ocean from home?  The last thing the European economy needs now is a reduction in tourism.  Greece is perilously close to defaulting on their sovereign debt, while Portugal and Spain are not far behind.  Our world is inter-connected in ways that are not obvious until something like this happens.

Bottom line, you can't fight Mother Nature.

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