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Volcanic Clouds, Black Swans and Other Disruptions

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, April 29, 2010
Updated: Thursday, February 17, 2011
The cloud of ice and rock that hovered over much of Europe after the spectacular April 14 eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland stalled air travel, disrupted markets and caused immediate losses for those in the business producing, transportingand selling perishable products and flowers.NATO and U.S. troop departures for Afghanistan were delayed. Scientists are pondering future effects on global agriculture and plant growth, and possible impact on the oceans.

A Bloomberg Business Week story by Sabine Pirone explains what volcanic ash can do to air planes. The ash plumes contain abrasive silica-based materials that can clog engines and sandblast windscreens. Planes flying through these clouds can spark an electrical discharge known as St. Elmo's fire, and speed sensors and power can be disrupted. A researcher quoted in Pirone's story reports 80 incidents of adverse events and near-disasters when planes flew into ash clouds. But nothing on the scale of the Iceland eruption has been recorded in recent times.

So what does this mean, and what should we learn? John Brockman, publisher and editor of, invited scientists, philosophers, psychologists, economists, artists and theoreticians from diverse fields to contribute their thoughts to The Ash Cloud- An Edge Special Event.

Here's a sampling of comments from the essays 32 scholars and thinkers have contributed so far to make sense of an unexpected event of world-wide importance..

Haim Harari, physicist, says the ash crisis and the financial crisis have much in common: Most decision makers don't understand math and science, he says, and most mathematicians and scientists "have no feel for the real implications of their calculations." He says we need scientifically trained political decisions makers.

Peter Schwartz, futurist and cofounder of the Global Business Network, is among those who say the consequences of the eruption are "a true Black Swan." He also says the event may not be over. If the volcano continues to erupt, or the even bigger adjacent volcano erupts, the ash cloud could be bigger, spread further, and have even greater consequences.

Emanuel Derman, professor of financial engineering, contributed two pithy lines. "Old technology-propeller driven planes-would not have been grounded by ash. More efficient, more vulnerable."

Joel Gold, MD, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry, says, "The world, shrunken by smart phones, red-eyes and the Web, is once again immense." The illusion that we can conquer the earth is dissolved.

Eduardo Salcedo-Albaran, social scientist: "Uncontrollable forces of nature outside ourselves are similar to those inside us: Geological phenomena are similar to strong emotions..." which can also be uncontrollable. He goes on to say, "we easily forget that nature is a continuum that transcends humanity: from star dust to genes to neurons."

Lawrence Krauss, physicist: The ash cloud demonstrates that with major events there is no such thing as local or regional He says a nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan could disrupt global climate for a decade. He adds, "If a simple volcano in Iceland can immobilize much of the world, even a small scale nuclear conflict has the capacity to affect all of humanity so profoundly that mere airline flight cancellations would be the least of our worries."

J. Doyne Farmer, physicist, sees the volcanic cloud as a reminder of the earth's power. "Volcanic eruptions are something we have to live with in order to enjoy the benefits of the nuclear power that keeps the earth's core hot." He goes on to explains that life on earth seemed doomed 700 million years ago in a phase when the entire surface of the earth was covered with ice. This period ended because volcanic action continued. So the volcanoes saved us.

Roger C. Schank, psychologist and computer scientist, says: "We are confused, as we should be."

Other contributors wrote about our need to understand risk, the trouble with risk aversion, the fallibility of models, and our relationship with chaos. Click here to read all of these provocative essays.

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