Who can forget that week in April 2010 when a mountain in Iceland closed the airspace of 20 countries and left millions of travellers stranded.
Eyjafjallakökull [eye-ah-flatla-yokill] hereinafter referred to, for obvious reasons, as the Icelandic volcano, or Eye-ah for short, blew its top and spewed tonnes of volcanic ash into the atmosphere.
The jet stream obligingly moved location until it was directly over the mountain so that the powerful volcano could just mainline straight into the planetary wind system of the northern hemisphere. The jet stream at the time also happened to be pointing in just the right direction for maximum havoc. It might have been facing north-west, towards Greenland? But no, it was contentedly pointing south-east, straight for mainland Europe. Nothing without feathers could fly for a week.
Among those inconvenienced was actor and comedian John Cleese who forked out around €4000 for one of the longest taxi rides in history. When his flight from Norway was cancelled he got a cab driver to take him from Oslo to Brussels, passing through six countries en route. Thus Cleese proved himself just as capable of doing a silly drive as a silly walk. Then there was the international rugby match between Switzerland and Lithuania that had to be cancelled as well. Which was quite astonishing really as, prior to that, nobody even knew that Switzerland and Lithuania had the vaguest notion what the game of rugby was about.
The crisis came to an end, in part at least, when a thoroughly fed up Willie Walsh, CEO of British Airways and a former Aer Lingus pilot, decided the authorities were being over-zealous in grounding flights, so he went up in a BA 747 which flew into the remnants of the cloud to prove that it could be done without causing death and destruction. In doing so Walsh went some way towards atoning for the debacle of the opening Heathrow’s Terminal Five two years earlier.
But was that mid-Atlantic volcanic event the most disruptive in modern history? If you were one of the 20 million air passengers whose flights were dumped you would be tempted to think so. But spare a thought for the victims of the Mount Tambora eruption of 1815. The Icelandic volcano with the uncomfortably long name killed no one, although it ruined lots of sun holidays and business trips. The Tambora event directly killed 10,000 and was indirectly responsible for the deaths of thousands more all across the planet.
Tambora was a volcanic mountain on the island of Sumbawa in what is now Indonesia. It had been dormant for several centuries before it erupted in April 1815, with such force that the noise could be heard on Sumatra, more than 2000 kilometres away. The explosion was four times the magnitude of the famous Krakatoa eruption seven decades later. The ash that was hurled into the atmosphere was carried across the entire globe and the strange yellow skies of the summer of 1815 were recorded in England by the great British landscape artist J.M.W.Turner.
But it didn’t stop there. With the particles of ash remaining in the atmosphere, summer of the following year simply never materialised. In the northern hemisphere, average temperatures fell by half a degree Celsius. 1816 became the infamous ‘Year Without a Summer’. Snow fell in June, frost was reported in August. In Hungary brown snow fell, in Italy it was red. Europe was especially badly afflicted as it was attempting to recover from the effects of the Napoleonic Wars. Almost 100,000 are believed to have died as an indirect result of the consequential disruption of crops. Many of those were in Ireland, where the plummeting summer temperatures resulted in one of the many famines of the 19thcentury as the wheat, oats and potato harvests all failed.
So cold was the weather in the summer of 1816 that a small group of English travellers in Switzerland spent most of their walking holiday indoors. They devised a method of staving off boredom by writing ghost stories. One of the tourists was a certain Mary Shelley. Her story went on to achieve some notoriety as Frankenstein.
So, was the eruption of Eyjafjallakökull [eye-ah-flatla-yokill] the most disruptive volcanic event in modern history? Not by a lava flow. That’s fake history.