Volcanic Ash – Crying Wolf Again or Real Threat? 103

There is a danger that the stage has been reached when we automatically disbelieve the government when it warns of a great danger. I believe, for example, that climate change is a great danger. Quite a lot of my friends, however, are dubious partly because the government is pushing it.

Consider the really major government scares of the last few years – things which were supposed to result in the death of millions – which proved to be nothing like the threat alleged. SARS, avian flu and swine flu all come instantly to mind. And what about the most ramped threat of all, the War of Terror, said by Tony Blair to be an “existential threat” and by John Reid to be a threat “On the scale of World War 2”.

There is an absolutely clear history of governmental over-exaggeration of threat, but also that governments have no difficulty in finding backing for this fear-mongering from government scientists and both techincal and inter-governmental international bodies. There are always virologists, vulcanologists and security experts willing to go on TV and tell us we are all doomed (oh, and can they get a bigger research grant to combat the threat).

So when the government promotes a big threat, I am conditioned to scepticism, even before British Airways flew a jumbo jet around for hours yesterday with the Chief Exec on board (after similar incident free test flights by other European airlines).

It turns out that the repeatedly quoted occasion when a BA flight lost power in all four engines due to volcanic dust, was a case of flying right through the plume close to the volcano in Indonesia. When you think about it, the fact that you can do something as extreme as that and nobody be hurt, is comforting rather than worrying.

As for widely dispersed ash, I have been wondering how Indonesia and Hawaii and Sicily ever manage flights. Why was there not a massive whole continent air lockdown after the vastly greater ash flown out by Mount St Helens?

As a society we have become risk averse to an unrealistic degree. We seem to spend our lives in a permanent state of cringe. Perhaps the ash really is too dangerous: but I see no reason to automatically believe the government on the subject.

103 thoughts on “Volcanic Ash – Crying Wolf Again or Real Threat?

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  • Tom Welsh

    “It turns out that the repeatedly quoted occasion when a BA flight lost power in all four engines due to volcanic dust, was a case of flying right through the plume close to the volcano in Indonesia”.

    Well, within 150 km anyway – if that is close. Please note that:

    1. The ash cloud from Mount Galunggung persisted for at least 3 months, after which the local authorities closed all the surrounding airspace indefinitely.

    2. The ash was more or less invisible.

    3. BA9 dropped 37,000 feet from its unusually high cruising altitude of 49,000 feet. Most of the intercontinental flights I have been on flew at 35,000 feet. Go figure, as the Americans say.

    Have you read about the Finnish Air Force F-16s that were so badly damaged by the volcanic ash that they were more or less disassembled, and all their motors had to be replaced? Guess what – the Finnish Air Force does not fly in the near vicinity of Iceland.

    When it comes to the propulsion and control systems of large commercial airliners, there is very little middle ground. Consider Air France flight 447, the Airbus 330 that crashed into the South Atlantic. All that really happened was that its pitot heads froze up – but it was utterly destroyed and, of course, everyone on board died. The saying about submarines also applies, in great measure, to aircraft: “there is no such thing as a small accident”. When it comes to the possibility of hundreds of violent deaths, the authorities are quite right to proceed carefully.

    Many of us have a weird sense of entitlement, proceeding no doubt from the great comfort and ease of our existence so far. Don’t forget that, in general, this is a violent and unpredictable universe in which death can come suddenly from many directions. It is deceptively easy to step outside the bubble of safety in which most of us spend our lives.

  • Larry from St. Louis

    Suhayl Saadi, compared to other commenters at this blog, you don’t seem like such a horrible person, so I don’t understand why you have to keep annoying me by asking me if I’m on the bus.

    I have in fact taken a few buses lately, and it hasn’t been all that fun.

  • MJ

    the_leander. To clarify: is it your proposition that there has been no real increase in autism and parents are just making it up, or that there has been a real increase in the incidence of autism, but only in a mild form, ie Aspergers?

    Secondly, you speak of having met people who claim to have Aspergers but have these been adults, or children from the MMR era, ie 5-10 years old?

  • Tom Welsh

    OK, before everyone jumps on my head, they were F-18s. I find “Hornet” a lot easier to remember than the numbers…

  • the_leander

    “To clarify: is it your proposition that there has been no real increase in autism and parents are just making it up, or that there has been a real increase in the incidence of autism, but only in a mild form, ie Aspergers?”

    Sure, I’ll clarify for you: In some parts of the world (see the cited incidence of Silicon Valley in the wiki article) there has been an explosion in the number of diagnosis. Anyone diagnosed as “Aspergers” is lumped in with the Autistic. Hence a huge rise in some places for the numbers of Autism (which is also being picked up more as diagnostic tools improve).

    In areas where single vaccines are available there has been no statistical change in these numbers. Likewise with the introduction of mercury free vaccines there has been no drop.

    I’ve seen empty uniform parents who had no business bringing kids into the world push and push medical services for diagnosis of Aspergers for kids who have never had an ounce of discipline thrown their way in their lives first hand. Yet these same kids, when placed into a disciplined and rules based environment actively flourish. For some, it is easier and even trendy to get such a diagnosis – drugging your kid upto the eyeballs is easier then doing the job of being a parent.

    “Secondly, you speak of having met people who claim to have Aspergers but have these been adults, or children from the MMR era, ie 5-10 years old?”

    All of the above. And the MMR has been available since 1971 in the US and 1988 in the UK “MMR era” as all children in school were vaccinated automatically, and the vaccine was also given to adults as a matter of course.


  • the_leander

    @Tom Welsh

    I wasn’t going to say anything. Though if they had been Falcons, the risks for the pilots would have been much greater as they only have the one engine.

  • the_leander

    From sikipedia:

    “Life is starting to return to normal for the people in Norfolk for the first time in nearly a century now that regular sightings of “the big scary metal dragons in the sky” have suddenly stopped.”

    /gets coat

  • Suhayl Saadi

    Larry, thanks. Sorry to annoy you!

    D’you remember that I asked you on another thread to imagine that you were sitting on a long-distance bus with the rain falling outside and no in-cabin entertainment? And to imagine yourself beginning to converse with the guy – me – sitting across the aisle? To forget politics for a moment and simply to talk about… whatever. Music, art, the sky, space, cars, flowers, wrestlers, boxing, the Dust Bowl Ballads, the Oort Cloud, the Etruscan language…

    You don’t have to be one of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters to ride on the bus. Not do you have to have a penchant for Kool-Aid.

    This was because I think that perhaps some of the hostility you perhaps feel you face on this blog may be to do at least in part with the perception some of the others may have that you either are an individual with possibly ‘neocon’ views who pops in simply to provoke and disrupt or that (to be frank) that ‘you’ are actually a number of individuals hired for the purpose.

    Now, both of these views may well be completely wrong and off-the-wall, but right now, I suspect many of the other bloggers (though who am I to speak thus?!) you are somewhat of a disembodied voice ?” no-one can perceive the person behind the voice. This is not the case for many of the other regular ?” or sporadic ?” bloggers, whether of the Left, Right, Centre or Religious persuasions.

    I often disagree with your posted views and sometimes I agree with them. But on various matters I also at times have disagreed with nearly everyone else who blogs here and they, with me.

    So I think that maybe if you were to spare a little time just talking about yourself it might help to make the dynamics of your posts and the responses to those posts, a little less… monochrome, shall we say.

    Perhaps you can’t be bothered and time is precious, I know. That’s fine. Perhaps I sound very pompous – it’s a just a blog, for Pete’s sake!

    So please just view this as a friendly suggestion which you can take or leave as you wish.

    Whether on or off the bus, or simply thumbing a lift (as people used to do), I wish you well.

  • the_leander

    “By your definition they sound more like cases of traditional autism, yet Aspergers is the diagnosis.”

    It’s not my definition of anything. It is the definition set out by the person who discovered it: Dr Hans Aspergers, who coincidentally showed a good few of the symptoms he described as being indicators for Aspergers Syndrome.

    I am well aware of what Aspergers is, and its crossover with HFA. Having had to work with full blown Autistics (both HFA and more extreme variants) knowing about such things is a must.

    The vast majority of people I have come across stating that they are Aspergers sufferers are self diagnosed, of the parents I saw push for that diagnosis – their kid was eventually taken into care and by all accounts has grown up into a perfectly normal adult – Like I said, for some, Aspergers is a great excuse to avoid actually being a parent.

  • MJ

    “The vast majority of people I have come across stating that they are Aspergers sufferers are self diagnosed”

    We can safely eliminate them from the discssion then. They do not form part of the huge increase in autism, which is confined to properly diagnosed cases.

  • Suhayl Saadi

    Arsalan: Why don’t you ask Jack Straw about the death of Dr David Kelly and why Hutton has restricted certain aspects for 75 years. You won’t get any real answers, of course, except more waffling tosh about so many ‘Inquiries’ and it being a matter for Lord Hutton and guff about sensitivity for the family.

    He’s not going to say,

    “Uhm, Mr Goldberg, it’s because the SIS sub-contracted the matter for executive action, what is commonly known in the trade as ‘a wet job’. And we as a government cannot let even an inkling of this get out. Thank you. Next…”

    The answer is not what you’d be raising it for. You’d be raising in order to remind people that many in this country suspect that the Secret State organises the assassination of whistleblowers who get too close to its dark and foetid heart.

    You’d also be reminding people that the Iraq Destruction at its root was driven by death on the inside as well as on the outside, in both the metaphorical and literal senses.

    My advice would be to keep your question short, uni-directional and clear, crisp and cold. Remember Thatcher squirming like a spider on TV under the ‘Belgrano’ questioning of that excellent, invisible woman from the public? That was moment to savour and it’s all we had for upwards of a decade.

    “Mr Straw, as Justice Secretary can you tell the audience exactly why Lord Hutton decided to keep details of his Inquiry into the death of the microbiologist, Dr David Kelly, secret for 75 years? What could be so very sensitive that the people of this country are not allowed to see it?”

    Just a suggestion, Arsalan.

  • MJ

    How about this:

    A few weeks ago the fashion designer Alexander McQueen was tragically found hanged in his home. It was the day before his mother’s funeral and he had left a suicide note. It is perhaps difficult to imagine a clearer case of suicide, but nevertheless a formal inquest into his death was held.

    In 2003 Dr David Kelly was found dead in far less clear cirmstances than this, yet no formal inquest was held to determine the cause of death. Why not?

  • Suhayl Saadi

    Absolutely. Of course, whatever is asked, he’ll just say,

    “I cannot comment on individual cases. But as a general principle, I would like to take this opportunity to assure everyone that as a Government we are committed to openness and dialogue, to full and frank discussion and consultation. That is why I am here today. And this is why we will win the election. Next…”

    Perhaps a bit of civil disobedience – old-fashioned heckling a la Mr eighty-four year pensioner at Labour Party Conference arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act or whatever it’s called now.

    Or just slap the bastard with a very cold, very hard, very large fish. Monty Python, Morris Dancing-style.

  • Mark Golding - Children of Iraq

    “Terror is the best political weapon for nothing drives people harder than a fear of sudden death”

    Adolf Hitler

    Fear is a powerful emotion and the primitive response to fear is fight or flight. A dog will bark from the scent of human fear. The fear of a terror attack is thus a powerful tool to obfuscate the balance of human rights and security such that they become contradictory and mutually exclusive.

    It is assumed that radicalisation from torture, rendition, illegal detention and the massacre of innocent civilians feed an over-whelming desire for revenge that leads to a terror attack.

    This argument and the analysis of radical activism by governments is purposely deeply flawed in that proper psychological studies show that atrocities cause dissent and non-violent condemnation and in the final analysis are self-destructing producing radical change.

    The radical discourse of using fear as a means of controlling and restricting thought, teaching and research must be vehemently opposed; over-egging fear should be destroyed at inception, and is, in our own stable, mellow and untroubled British society.

    (Thank-you mother for your MANY interesting accounts of being an ARP warden at Crystal Palace and how you overcame the fear of ‘doodlebugs’ and V2 rockets.)

  • Mark Golding - Children of Iraq

    Nice one! Suhayl – I have to overcome the fear of being physically sick looking at any image of Blair – but he is obviously grinding his teeth in frustration at the thought of being unable to deliver his masters instructions on the campaign trail!

  • the_leander

    “We can safely eliminate them from the discssion then. They do not form part of the huge increase in autism, which is confined to properly diagnosed cases.”

    Depends. I’ve seen some pretty ropey Anti Vaxxer numbers. Then again, the Anti-Vaxxers are little more then an offshoot of the regular David Ike lot with added soccer moms.

  • Stephen Jones

    The 1982 flight was well away from the volcano. The point is that the ash gets carried by wind.

  • Craig


    I have no reason to disbelieve either you or Tom. I heard the assertion that the 1982 flight was close to the volcano twice on Sky News, once from an interviewee and once from a newscaster (some 48 hours apart). Nobody contradicted it so I went with it – silly me for believing the Murdoch media.

    Mind yo 150km ffrom the volcano wouldn’t reach British airspace. Of course I understand it gets carried by wind, but in doing so it disperses.

  • glenn

    Suhayl Saadi: You misunderstand the relationship that teabaggers like Larry have with normal people here. Different opinions are fine, and I’ve disagreed with probably everyone here at times, and have said so, and them to me. That’s not the problem.

    The problem is that a teabagger like Larry wants to attack, attack, attack with slogans and force-fed assumptions, lie and misrepresent, with the central tactic being the logical fallacy and outright falsehood of guilt by association. Hence the continual references to “loons”, conspiracy theorists and anti-semitism, desperately hoping to drag all that baggage onto anyone who _isn’t_ a teabagging hard-right neo-con fascist freak such as Larry himself.

    Of course, these teabaggers would like nothing better than to denounce a lack of Christianity, but at least this one is wise enough to know that load of religious hogwash isn’t going to fly in any sane country. So the best that teabaggers are left with are shrill denunciations and lies, hoping some of it will stick.

    If you want a particular example, notice how the teabagger Larry hangs himself just today with his lies:

    —start quote

    Yep, from Glenn and MJ and others, the same bullshit autism arguments from the likes of Jenny McCarthy and some doctors of ill repute.

    —end quote

    And so on. I’ve not said for a moment that I subscribe to such views, but rather suggested how the government could get around the problems of those that do. What does our teabagger do? Lies. Pretends that I personally subscribe to people I’ve never even mentioned, quoted, or had any common ground with on this subject, and hopes to associate an assumed guilt. (The assumption that these people he mentions (who I’ve not heard of half the time) are guilty bang to rights, of course, is another underhand lie/slur/tactic of teabaggers.)

    Suhayl Saadi, you cannot treat these lying zealots like ordinary people. They lie all the time, think that there’s nothing at all wrong with doing so, and only serve to disrupt a perceived opposition. You’ll get nothing out of Larry, or any other teabagger. They are incapable of being rational, truthful or genuine.

  • edwin

    there are three different things that are being lumped together here:

    The nanny state, war on terror, and natural disasters.

    Each is different, and represents different functions of the government.

    The war on terror seems to be to control people through having them live in fear. That doesn’t fit with the volcanic ash. Its inconvenient, but not terrifying.

    The nanny state is an attempt by the government to be responsive to people who continually complain/sue about anything and everything – demanding that maximum safety be the government’s by-word.

    It seems to me that only partially fits here. Rather it looks like there is a potential for serious harm with a lot of unknowns. In such circumstances, prudence demands caution.

    In Canada we had somewhat similar situation with scientists crying out that we were headed for disaster, while there was enormous pressure to ignore scientists in favour of commercial interests. There were a huge number of arguments on why the scientists were wrong. That was over the cod fishery. The end result was we destroyed the fishery, and had to close it down to all fishing. The doom and gloom nanny state scientists were right.

    Part of the problem is that if you listen to the scientists, you probably will never know for sure if they were correct or not. It is only when you ignore what they say that you learn about just how accurate or inaccurate they are.

  • Edward Haworth

    It is really starting to annoy me that people criticise the government for scare-mongering or over-reacting to the swine flu pandemic. This was actually an example of good planning and decisive action in light of a rapidly evolving and unpredictable epidemic. We got lucky that the virus was less severe than feared but that is all it is: luck. If the government had ignored it we could just as easily have been looking at hundreds of thousands dead.

    Gordon Brown and the Labour party have been terrible for Britain but not everything they did was wrong.

  • the_leander

    “Mind yo 150km ffrom the volcano wouldn’t reach British airspace. Of course I understand it gets carried by wind, but in doing so it disperses.”

    The problem with jet engines (and turbo props), unlike the engine in a car or very old aircraft is that they lack a graceful degradation of operation. Unlike a car engine which might still go (albeit with much reduced power) with a couple of cylinders not firing, a Jet engine is much more likely to simply stop working. The only real question being whether it stops with a bang or a whimper.

    We know that going through relatively high concentrations will severely damage an engine or as in the case of the airliner completely kill it. The question that has to be asked is at what concentration is this stuff safe? What condition were the engines of that aircraft that went up today in when it came back down?

    These questions need answers to allow for a more fine tuned approach. I have to say that, unlike with SARs or Swine Flu, I think the gov have taken the correct action in this instance. I very much doubt that the tens of thousands stranded would really appreciate being used as guinea pigs if it turns out that sustained flying through lower levels is as catastrophic as a short stint through a higher concentration.

  • glenn

    the_leander: Very true, and it’s not just people who decide to take the risk with their company, or those who want to fly thinking the chance is worth it because the government always lies an’ all. What about the people on the ground who have no say in it whatsoever? A plane falling randomly out of the sky can cause a lot of damage. Ask the remaining residents of Locherbie.

  • MJ

    When planes have been affected by this type of volcanic ash in the past they have not crashed. The engines have seized up from the build-up of molten glass but the pilot has been able to rectify it by switching off the engines, gliding for a few seconds until the glass cools and solidifies, then restarting the engine.

    This has quickly expelled the glass and the plane has then flown normally. Perhaps not the kind of thing one would want passenger jets to do, but it does work.

  • glenn

    MJ: This is a great example of the hugely inappropriate ways in which we treat relative risk. Might people accept there’s a bit of a risk of ash clogging up the engines, _and_ they can’t be restarted? Perhaps. But what about the vastly lesser risk of a mad jihadist getting onboard with some deadly bomb, and getting away with that? I’d suggest the second is vastly less risky. But people generally will accept the risks from jihadists far less readily, and so will subject themselves to humiliating searches and infringements on their civil liberties accordingly.

  • Richard Robinson

    “the pilot has been able to rectify it by switching off the engines, gliding for a few seconds until the glass cools and solidifies, then restarting the engine … This has quickly expelled the glass and the plane has then flown normally. Perhaps not the kind of thing one would want passenger jets to do, but it does work.”

    If you were on a plane that did that, I think a reassurance that “not to worry, the engines will probably start again a bit before we hit the ground” would feel like something of a last resort. But it would certainly be a great advantage in researching the situation, if you might have to find yourself doing that.

    I dunno. It’s not clear to me what’s actually being done, and how much there’s maybe just a problem of presentation, which as usual seems a little infantilising.

    I mean, at the point where it’s a new situation, to look for what’s known, see the Indonesian example and say “Everybody down, now” seems reasonable enough as a first move, until you know more. But then all the subsequent presentation has seemed to be, just wait until it all blows away. Until the last day or two, when it’s “business” beginning to say “We’re losing money, how long does this go on ?”. Point is, the last time this volcano did its stuff, it emitted smoke for a couple of years. There’s no reason it has to be over any time soon. And there’s no way Europe is going to just not use ar travel any more. So we need to know a lot more detail about exactly when and why these problems start kicking in, and how you can spot (and predict the movements of) the patches of sky where bad things might happen.

    So I’d say what should have been happening is that Big European Government should have set about making sure that people are organising to find this stuff out. And the impression from the media doesn’t seem to be that, more individual airline companies trying things out on their own. I’d have thought some serious pooling of resources would be more appropriate. But maybe it’s happening and the reporting I’ve heard just hasn’t mentioned it.

  • Larry from St. Louis

    Glenn: “teabaggers like Larry”

    So, let’s review. I don’t believe in 911 nutter conspiracy theories, and I don’t believe that MMR causes autism, so I must be a right-wing Christian teabagger.

    The 911 nuts in the States started the tea party stuff. It morphed into a Ron Paul event, and now it’s an anti-Obama crowd. The 911 conspiraloons still show up for such things, but of course they’re shunned.

    As to anti-vax, I can imagine you’d find a lot of anti-vax nuts among the tea party crowd. It’s fairly popular nuttery among the anti-government crowd.

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