An Inconvenient Volcano


You may or may not have been affected by the volcano which cannot be named. It cannot be named, not because of some Harry Potteresque reason but because it is simply unpronouncable by most human beings, unless you happen to Icelandic. The Volcano has had its 15 minutes (well, 6 days) of fame. The BBC has even launched a pronunciation guide for it – now that’s real fame. Up until then, I was being a lazy reader and just sort of glossing over the name or referring to it as that Volcano in (or rather under) Iceland.

The incident raises some inconvenient safety issues. On the one hand, people are pretty happy to abide by safety restrictions, provided it seems sensible AND provided it doesn’t inconvenience you too much (or at least, not for very long). Six days is intolerable – especially if you’re living out of suitcase.

On the other hand you have the Aviation regulator (endearingly called NATS) who have the difficult burden of being damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Their decision now seems shakey and overreactive at best. But I have a good deal of sympathy with them. Because of the potential for a plane crash (where everyone dies), tolerable concentration guidelines for volcanic ash had been set very conservatively and up until then, it really hadn’t mattered because such incidents were pretty rare.

The fallout (probably ash actually) from the recent major disruption has caused them to bow to pressure (did I say that), sorry, to re-examine the evidence more scientifically and set a more realistic figure. This sort of thing happens all the time in lots of areas (occupational exposure limits frequently change as do recommendations on what you should eat to avoid cancer….). That’s because, frequently we have to moderate/interpret objective evidence with judgement and experience (now that sounds too close to risk assessment for comfort). We have to judge what is an acceptable risk and that can depend very much on not only what evidence or assumptions (i.e guesses) we have at the time but also who is taking the risk, our own sensibilities and public/political opinion.

Reviewing, refining, adapting to technical progress (and learning from mistakes) is just what happens. Potential problems never seem too important when things are running smoothly.

Annoyingly, the reporters and Icelanders seemed to be enjoying themselves far too much and saying that Volcanoe’s name far too fluently. Now, repeat after me Eyjafjallajokull…..