An eruption of fear and irrationalism

As more facts come to light, we can finally see how crazy it was to shut UK airspace in response to the Icelandic volcano.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

So, with the Eyjafjallajökull volcano now appearing to be dormant once more, it seems that Iceland’s most famous export besides fish, the ash cloud, was not quite the mortal threat to European aviation it was said to be. No engines failed, no windows were sandblasted, and no planes crashed. Even at the height of the panic, over the UK and Europe the ash was not of a density sufficient to cause any damage. This does rather raise the question as to why on 15 April, National Air Traffic Services (NATS) closed down all UK airspace for five days, a decision that prompted most of the rest of Europe to do likewise.

The principal reason is that on the morning of 15 April, as the plume of ash from Iceland drifted over the UK, NATS simply did not know whether planes could fly through it without causing damage to their engines. This initial ignorance, backed up by the equally ignorant but zero-tolerance UK Civil Aviation Authority guidelines on volcanic ash clouds, led NATS to shut everything down. ‘It is our priority to ensure safety’, a spokesperson for NATS said at the time. In other words, no risks would, could or should be taken.

The strange thing about this safety-conscious approach is that over a prolonged period of time very little was done to establish whether the ash cloud really did pose a threat to aircraft engines. What was needed was a rational risk-assessment and on that basis an attempt to work out the probable outcomes. That this was absent becomes clear when one considers what the decision to completely shut down UK airspace was based on: a UK Meteorological Office computer modelling system. Such models project the distribution of the ash cloud over a certain period of time. Unfortunately, not only does the margin of error significantly increase over time – which is what you’d expect of any modelling system – but the model also proved incapable of providing the one key datum necessary to gauge potential aircraft damage: the particle density of the ash cloud.

We have since discovered that the maximum density of ash (100 micrograms of ash per cubic metre) over the UK during the ban was one fortieth of that now deemed a safe threshold (4,000 micrograms of ash per cubic metre). In other words, the ban was nowhere near justified by what is now the official threshold.

While it’s right to ask why it took so long to assess the density of the ash cloud over the UK (apparently the Met Office’s aeroplane was being repainted at the time), it might seem a bit unfair to accuse the UK’s air travel authorities of not knowing what was a safe density before the density threshold was established. I say ‘might’, because it seems that plenty of people have long had a pretty accurate idea of what density of volcanic ash was a danger to aircraft engines and what was not. In the words of Roy Strasser of American weather forecasters WSI, ‘experience shows it’s only when ash is visible that it’s concentrated enough to be a hazard to aviation’. Or if you like your visibility measurable, you’d be able to see the ash at approximately 2,000 micrograms of ash per cubic metre – that is, half the official threshold.

Strasser does seem to be right: experience really does show when ash is really a hazard to aviation. This was no doubt why pilots of numerous privately chartered jets continued to fly the rich and impatient across Europe despite the ban; this was no doubt why US aviation authorities, when dealing with volcanic ash clouds in the past, have tended to ignore the International Civil Aviation Authority guidelines and allow airline companies to make the decision themselves on whether to fly based on satellite maps showing visible ash cloud; and this is no doubt why the two most celebrated cases of ash-induced engine failure (a British Airways flight over Indonesia in 1982 and a KLM flight over Alaska in 1989) happened in relatively close proximity to the erupting volcanoes. (The KLM flight was a mere 240km from Mount Redoubt and the BA flight was just 150km downwind of Mount Galunggung. To put that into perspective, London’s Heathrow airport is 1,900km from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull glacier.) It does not take a genius, or indeed a volcanologist doing a part-time PhD in meteorology, to work out that the further the ash drifts, the less dense it will be.

Sadly, neither experience nor evidence seems to have played any part in the authorities’ decision to shut down UK airspace. Just the opposite, in fact. The sheer absence of knowledge, a lack almost willed on the part of Britain’s air travel officials, seems to have been the driving force behind the ban. Without an idea of what was likely to happen, the sheer sense of what could possibly happen filled the breach. The decision was therefore taken, and persisted with, on the basis of what Frank Furedi has called ‘worst-case thinking’: in this case, a plane enduring engine failure and crashing. What is particularly perplexing about this attempt to conceive the nightmare scenario as a possible outcome is that it has never happened. That is, in over 110 years of aviation history no plane has crashed having flown through a cloud of volcanic ash.

Which ever way it is spun, the decision of NATS, and the reason for it – in the words of then prime minister Gordon Brown ‘safety [being] paramount’ – was without justification. And it was as much of an overreaction then as it has since been proven to be.

Oh, hindsight’s a wonderful thing, the precaution-first-ask-questions-later brigade will complain. Which might almost be justified, except for one thing. This is not just a matter of hindsight. We have been here before. Not just once or twice, but countless times over the past decade or so. I am not talking about planes or volcanoes. I am talking about the number of times the hyperactive imaginations of those in positions of authority have had occasion to be exercised. They just can’t help themselves. Facing a problem, whether it’s a volcanic ash cloud or a disease or a computer date algorithm, brings not the best out of those tasked with dealing with it, but the worst: the worst-case scenario, the worst-case consequence, the worst-case result. No wonder the decisions that are then taken bear so little relation to the problem in hand.

Take the response to the avian flu outbreak in 2005. Dr David Nabarro, the UN systems coordinator for human and avian influenza, declared: ‘I’m not, at the moment, at liberty to give you a prediction on [potential mortality] numbers.’ He then gave a prediction on potential mortality numbers: ‘Let’s say, the range of deaths could be anything from five million to 150million.’ Nabarro should have kept his estimating prowess enslaved: the number of cases of avian flu stands at a mere 498, of which just 294 have proved fatal.

A cautionary tale for officials when wondering how to respond to the outbreak of swine flu last year? Not at all; the response to avian flu merely seemed to provide the authorities with the precautionary script for its porkie-packed successor. On 11 June 2009, just over a month after the initial outbreak in Mexico, the World Health Organisation finally announced that swine flu was now worthy of its highest alert status of level six, a global pandemic. Despite claims that there was no need to panic, that’s exactly what national health authorities did. In the UK, while the Department of Health was closing schools, politicians were falling over themselves to imagine the worst possible outcomes: second more deadly waves of flu, virus mutation – nothing was too far-fetched for it not to become a public announcement. This was going to be like the great Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-20. But worse.

However, just as day follows nightmares, the dawning reality proved to be rather more mundane. By March 2010, nearly a full year after the H1N1 virus first began frightening the British government, the death toll stood not in the hundreds of thousands, but at 457. To put that into perspective, the average mortality rate for your common-or-garden flu is 600 deaths per year in a non-epidemic year and between 12,000 and 13,800 deaths per year in an epidemic year. In other words, far from heralding the imagined super virus, swine flu was more mild than the strains of flu we’ve lived with, and survived, for centuries. Reflecting on the hysteria which characterised the WHO’s response to Mexico, German politician Dr Wolfgang Wodarg told the WHO last week: ‘What we experienced in Mexico City was very mild flu which did not kill more than usual – which killed even less than usual.’

What an outbreak of flu and the eruption of the volcano share is their ability to prompt flights of sheer terror on the part of the institutions tasked with dealing with them. It reveals a paradox at the heart of those institutions: never have those vested with authority so lacked precisely that quality. Before problems of vastly different natures, the institutional responses lack any vestige of confidence, any trace of self-certainty, any sense that these bodies of men and women are in control, and any notion that a situation can be rationally assessed on the basis of probable outcomes. Rather the responses are those of institutions perceiving, and cowering before, the radical uncertainty of the future, and with that, refusing to take any responsibility for a positive course of action. Because, although they appear to be decisions, shutting down European airspace for nearly six days, or producing as much swine flu vaccine as there is tea in China, are not positive, purposeful decisions. They are the anti-decision decisions of governing institutions desperate to avoid taking responsibility for anything that might go wrong. That also means they are never in a position to take responibility for anything that might go right.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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