standard Ash cloud over Europe: When global expertise isn’t enough

New ash clouds are forming in Iceland (Reuters)

The volcanic ash cloud that appeared over Europe during the middle of April, and which has made a partial return recently, brings into sharp focus the expectations that we as societies have of both experts and expert knowledge.  Is it too much to ask that the meteorological authorities can’t provide real-time dynamic concentrations of ash at all altitudes relevant to aircraft?  Shouldn’t the aircraft manufacturers know just how much ash will cause their engines to malfunction?  Can’t the authorities responsible for regulating use of airspace, and by implication air safety, understand the trade-off, the ‘proportionate response’ that they are being asked for in trading off the risks to people and property against the economic and other consequences of closing airports?  When I look at each of these questions I find myself with troubling doubts, not over whether or not the answers to them imply that it is or was safe to fly, but over, quite simply, the assumption that we make regarding the knowability of the world in which we live.

On the one hand, the ash cloud has become an emblematic reminder of just how geographically-globalised our lives have become, as we found our families stuck in faraway places and as the stock of fresh food in our supermarket shelves shifted away from airborne travel.  But on the other it reminds us that the benefits of geographical-globalisation are associated with new sorts of risk, ever-present but rarely manifest, that follow from the same technologies that underpin globalisation. When risks like these make themselves felt our natural assumption is to expect that experts are there to provide the answers that we need in order to live with them.  The ash cloud created a profound sense of helplessness when such expertise was found to be not forthcoming, when we discovered that experts didn’t know what the safe concentrations of ash were, that forecasters could not produce reliable sub-hourly maps of where it was safe to fly and that decision makers could not easily trade-off the economic consequences of closing air space against the risks of catastrophic engine failure.

The normal assumption in this situation is that appropriate investment in science or expertise could have answered these questions.  But, to make such an assumption, is to overlook the lessons learnt over the last 50 years regarding environmental catastrophes.  Not only is the manifestation of a catastrophe (e.g. the movement of volcanic ash in space and time) something that is dependent upon well understood yet hard to predict processes (the weather), but catastrophes are catastrophic precisely because they have an element of surprise that shows us as much about what we don’t know as what we do know.  What the ash cloud reminds us is that one of the costs of all the benefits of our globalised world are risks that may well defy expert prediction, if not expert understanding.  Experts can’t always answer everything, however well-funded and well-resourced their research might be.

Professor Stuart Lane, Executive Director of Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience

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