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Disaster Central

I’m beginning to feel like something of a jinx. I go to the Antarctic Peninsula every austral summer and invariably while I’m there ships run aground, or sink. I slink into the U.K. for an anticipated 48 hours and an erupting volcano shuts down 8 million travelers. And the very week that we are putting the finishing touches on a new film, two years in production, about the complex relationship between man and the sea in southern Louisiana … catastrophe strikes the Gulf of Mexico, impacting many of the fishermen, conservationists and activists featured in it. (Not to mention my several Chilean friends who are still leading efforts to clean up their coastline and get people back in homes before winter arrives down south.)

Just how bad are these recent seeming-catastrophes?

Even as Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano belches anew (yesterday its drifting ash shut down airspace over Ireland and Scotland, nothing like the damage done by cancellation of 100,000 flights while I was there) by comparison to past blasts it remains a small burp.

How small? In 1815, on the island of Sumbawa (in today’s Indonesia), a volcano named Tambora sputtered and coughed for nearly two weeks before blowing 24 cubic miles of lava into the sky, opening up a crater more than three miles wide and a mile deep. More than 120,000 people died, largely because everything around them – vegetation, marine life – was smothered by ash causing crop failures and epidemics.

Sixty-eight years later, Krakatoa spewed just 3.5 cubic miles of molten rock and ash; Vesuvius 1.4 cubic miles and Mt. St. Helens, in 1980, 0.3 cubic miles. Each of those was considered major; Iceland’s recent burp was just that. Yet it shut down all of Europe for six days, impacting the world’s economy to the tune of between $2 and $3 billion.

Similarly, as the Times reports this morning, the ongoing spillage in the Gulf of Mexico are – for the moment – far from record-setting. (Its list includes the 36 billion gallons of oil spilled by retreating Iraqis during their retreat from Kuwait in 1991 and the Ixtoc 1 blowout in the Bay of Campeche, Mexico, in 1979, which dumped 140 million gallons of crude oil before it was stopped. The Exxon Valdez’s 11 million gallons is the biggest spill since.) Of course we won’t know for some weeks/months to come just how much the Deepwater Horizon will leak into the ocean.

But as winds and currents for the moment are keeping much of the leaking oil from washing ashore in the Gulf States – though trade winds may very well carry the spillage around the southern tip of Florida and eventually up the Atlantic coastline – there is a kind of creeping “out of sight, out of mind” mentality in the mainstream press.

Not so dissimilar from the attitude towards offshore drilling itself, until a couple weeks ago. If you can’t see the rigs from shore, they must not be a problem. If the majority of the now-spilling oil doesn’t come ashore but stays out to sea, disaster has been averted. Unless of course you’re a dolphin, whale, mollusk, seabird or fishermen, whose lives and livelihoods depend on a clean, healthy ocean.

Volcano Hell

Day Five. That’s how long I’ve been stuck in London, waiting out the drift of volcanic ash, incredible governmental indecision and dilly-dallying, increasing anger from the airline representatives and observing an incredible amount of human patience. As I write – 18:39 on Tuesday – it appears this tragic-comedy travel adventure will definitely last into Day Six, Seven, Eight and beyond.

It began with my arrival in the U.K. at Heathrow, early last Wednesday morning. I took a bus directly to Oxford, intending to be across the pond for just 48 hours, come to moderate a panel on the future and perils of our ocean at the Skoll World Forum and intended it to be a short trip because I had a big week ahead: My new book – OCEANS, The Threats to Our Seas and What You Can Do To Turn the Tide – was published last week, on the eve of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, and I wanted to get back home quickly in order to help promote it.

It was on my way into the panel on the early afternoon of last Thursday that I first learned from my friend and colleague Jake Eberts – executive producer of the new OCEANS movie, out on Earth Day and which my book companions – that we might not be getting out of town as planned. We were planning to travel together over the next couple days to San Francisco and Los Angeles, to screen the film, promote the book and more.

Obviously that plan went slightly awry. On a beautiful spring morning, last Friday, we traveled by hansom cab from Oxford to London, where Jake would wait for many hours to get on a jam-packed Eurostar train back to his home in Paris. By the end of the morning the volcano had completely halted all air travel in and out of Europe and stymied it in much of the rest of the world. I’ve been stuck, albeit comfortably in a hotel along the River Thames, ever since.

With four confirmed air reservations out of London’s Heathrow over the next few days, normally the busiest airport in Europe, I went to bed last night confident I’d be home soon … only to wake up this morning to the BBC telling me a sizable new ash cloud was headed towards UK airspace. During the course of today not a single plane left Heathrow, though they did with some regularity from Paris and Frankfurt. The projection – gamble — is that no flights will leave from London during the next few days.

Which for me means a complete reorganization. I have to get out of this hotel, if just to save my sanity. The best option, it appears, is Spain. So it looks like I’ll get to spend twenty-plus hours viewing the lovely Spanish coast from a bus window.

Which will give me plenty of time to ponder the whole event. The last time this particular Icelandic volcano erupted it blew for a full two years. Who knows, maybe a similar two-year cycle began a week ago. We, mankind, have gotten so spoiled, thinking we can go and do whatever, whenever we choose, that a natural act like this is a great reminder. In 1815 a volcano named Tambara erupted in Indonesia, wrapping the entire planet in a veil of sulfur, blocking the sun’s rays for an entire year and creating what was known then as “the year without summer.” Bitter cold and frosts devastated North America and Europe and famine led to the last great subsistence crisis in the western world. Who knows, we might be on the precipice of that again.

A mere 74,000 years ago another volcanic eruption — by Toba, also in Indonesia — was so powerful it nearly obliterated the entire human race.

So … our Icelandic blow could have been far worse. Maybe it will simply serve as one of a variety of reminders that man is not in control. I would think that recent tremblors, in Haiti, Chile and China, would have already reminded us of that very well.

On the bus to Madrid I’ll be traveling with a handful of international environmental luminaries, also escapees from last week’s Skoll World Forum, who’ve been stuck ever since. While we are all desperately scurrying to get home, traveling by car, bus, train and plane on the days surrounding the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, I’m sure the subject of the individual carbon footprints we are stamping out will arise. Once home, I’ll bet we all vow to stay put … for awhile.