Monday, May 3, 2010

Eyjafjallajokull Volcano: The Gift of Calamity

Have you ever received a gift that you didn’t at first appreciate? Perhaps you didn’t even realize that it was a gift? In fact you thought it was the opposite? When a volcanic dust plume from the Eyjafjallajokull Volcano disrupted air traffic all around the world on April 15th (by affecting the busiest destinations of Europe) no one thought to call it a gift.

The plume left millions of people stranded in various countries, going to or from Europe. The ripples of disruption were felt globally by businesses (e.g., freight delays and other losses) and individuals (e.g., from day laborers in Kenya to the Swiss grocery Migros unable to receive shipments of asparagus for its peak season in restaurants). Airlines lost billions of dollars (around $20 million a day).

How is this a gift? Well, let me explain…

First, let’s backtrack to April 14th, when the Eyjafjallajokull Volcano actually erupted, sending a massive ash plume into the sky that travelled straight into the congested air space of Europe. Toulouse and I were touring Switzerland in blissful ignorance. We’d come earlier to attend The Mind and Life Conference on Altruism and Compassion in Economics with the Dalai Lama in Zurich.

On April 12th (my birthday), we rented a car and drove into the countryside near Lucerne to experience the real Switzerland and eat lots of chocolate. We found a very classy and very Swiss hotel run by Prince Joseph I (yes, he’s a real prince!). The Schloss Hotel is located on the road to Lucerne in the cozy village of Merlischachen. We celebrated my birthday with a gourmet supper in their Fancy restaurant —escargots bourguignon with Café de Paris sauce, a Chateaubriand à l’argenteuil with white asparagus, potato-croquettes and amarone wine—oh, and some powerfully wonderful apfel schnapps made by the Prince himself! (You can find a lot more on this classy hotel and restaurant on Toulouse’s blog).

From our home base in Merlischachen, Toulouse and I explored the roads, mountains and lakes of Switzerland for the next few days in blissful ignorance.

As meteorologists scrambled on April 14th with projections on flight disruptions in skies of major European flight routes, Toulouse and I were blithely touring the Luzern and Interlacken regions of Switzerland, sampling excellent coffees, wines and foods along the way. As we visited tiny lakeside and farming villages nestled in mountain valleys, warnings abounded. We ignored them. We never turned the TV on or paid much attention to the newspapers (which were in German). The looming topic of flight-disaster never came up with the locals—mostly bartenders and waiters, more concerned with local news and interpreting our broken German.

On April 15th, twenty-four hours after the eruption, the plume rose seven miles and blew across the Norwegian Sea to Scandinavia, and southeast across the Shetland Isles. It spread as far as the north coast of Scotland, bringing with it the strong smell of rotten eggs.

Air traffic controllers in Aberdeen predicted that local airspace could be closed for a few hours, but by evening it was clear the situation was more serious than that. By early Thursday morning Scotland became a no-fly zone. By 2.30 pm on Thursday the vast cloud had spread across England, and fears that its fine particles could cause passenger jets to crash caused an unprecedented shutdown of all of Britain's airports. As Toulouse and I drove in blissfully through the Swiss Alps, our Air Canada connecting flight home out of London had just been cancelled. Ireland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden also shut their airports as the plume spread east and south, veiling most of the British Isles, Scandinavia, and much of northern western and eastern Europe with a dangerous layer of glassy dust.

By Friday, April 16th, as Toulouse and I took the cog-wheel train up the Jungfrau (one of Switzerland’s highest peaks at 4158 m of the Bernese Alps), all of northern Europe’s air traffic shut down and our Swiss Air flight out of Zurich (connecting in London) was cancelled. Flights were cancelled throughout Switzerland, Germany, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Toulouse and I stopped at Kleine Scheidegg along with other skiers and enjoyed a cervelat & sauerkraut with local beer and a view of the Eiger (3970 m) while millions of stranded travelers camped in airports, queued in front of train stations and carpooled south.

Marcus Bursik, a volcanologist with the University of Buffalo, who tracks ash plumes and their effects on air transportation, explained the problem: "The ash actually gets heated and turns into a liquid, becoming a kind of glassy rind that sticks to parts in the back of the engine. It can cause flameouts and the engines will stop working." While the cloud threat may seem unique, it's very common on routes between North America and Asia, said Bursik. "In that area planes are diverted quite often around ash clouds that are erupting from the Aleutian Islands." He said that planes can fly above the eight-to 10-kilometre-high ash clouds but the problem is different "with the Iceland eruption because that ash is right over the landing sites, so you can't take off or get in."

On April 17th we drove to the Zurich Airport to catch our flight home to Nova Scotia. I was sad to leave but ready to embrace my responsibilities at home and see my friends again. Luckily we stopped in at a café just south of Zurich and mentioned we were flying out that day. That’s when the clerk told us about the Eyjafjallajokull eruption. All flights were cancelled out of Zurich and most of Europe, he said. I stared incredulously as he showed me all the cancelled flights to and from Zurich Airport on his iPhone. Toulouse and I did a quick scramble-dance: there was no point in going to the airport; bazillions of stranded travelers were bivouacked there already. Trying to rebook or make other arrangements with the airline seemed impractical, if not impossible. I hadn’t begun to realize the magnitude of the situation. Zurich Airport hadn’t closed yet but would within hours.

Thanks to the kind man at the café who leant me his phone I made several calls, one to the Avis car company to extend my rental car and one to a nearby hotel for fairly inexpensive accommodation (well, that’s all relative here, in Switzerland, where nothing is inexpensive, really—you even have to pay to use the toilets in Zurich!).

We settled into the somewhat trendy Euro-style Ibis Hotel and consoled ourselves with pear and apple schnapps in the lounge as we “re-grouped’ amid other stranded travelers, who feared a chain-eruption by the larger Katla Volcano (which has happened in the past) and indefinite flight disruptions. We were given several options by fellow-travelers to “skip out”, including car-pooling to England, taking a boat across, or driving south to Spain. We chose none of them and faithfully bided our time over cafe creme and gourmet egg salad sandwiches (only in Switzerland! :).

By Monday April 18th, it was clear that we weren’t getting home soon; flights hadn’t resumed and there would be a huge backlog to deal with. No one was answering the phone. In a moment of genius, Toulouse suggested that we return to our haven and “home away from home” in Merlischachen, near Lucerne. In keeping with the theme of our original journey to Switzerland, Joerg, the manager of the Schloss Hotel, displayed incredible compassion and gave us a luxury room at a very reduced rate for as long as we needed until we could get a flight home (see Toulouse’s posts on the Schloss Hotel, the Swiss Chalet and Prince Joseph). The room overlooked Lake Lucerne with a breathtaking view of the Swiss Alps to the soothing music of cow bells (yes, all the cows wear bells here!). It was several days before we managed to get through to the airlines to rebook our flight; the first available flight was over a week later; so, we relaxed and enjoyed our extended stay.

Using Merlischachen as our “home base”, we explored Switzerland in style. Our little Opel rent-a-car took us to one of Switzerland’s highest mountains – the Jungfrau (at 4158 m) near Interlacken; through Switzerland’s longest Gotthard Tunnel (the third longest tunnel in the world at 16.4 km); into Italy via Lugano along the Lago Maggiore; and all around the Vierwaldstatter See (Lake Lucerne). We also enjoyed exploring the Swiss Alps between Schwyz and Glaris, where Toulouse and I discovered a “magical” lake in a hidden alpine valley: we drove the one-lane road around the Wägetaler See through an enchanted forest and savored the very best coffee Toulouse and I have ever tasted (and we’ve been to Paris!) at the Gasthaus Stausee am Wägetalersee in the tiny village of Innerthal. Oh, and let’s not forget the thousand gnomes we also encountered there! But I’ll let Toulouse tell that story!

Eyjafjallajokull Volcano may have detained us involuntarily in Switzerland; but Toulouse and I made the most of our stay in this extremely picturesque and pastoral country. I think it was only then that I fully began to appreciate the true beauty of Switzerland and her wonderful people, who at every turn of our extended stay showed compassion, humor, kindness and wonderful curiosity. Our extended stay brought us into the heart of Switzerland that up until then I had only glimpsed from a distance. Switzerland had changed. Or rather it was I who had changed.

The irony is that the Eyjafjallajokull Volcano and its veil of dust had given me the gift of pure sight.

Heartfelt thanks to Joerg, Prince Joseph, Paul, Ina, Rita, Ralphi, Sarritas & Johir, Marion, Alexander & Maira, Priska, Tony, Stefan, Carsten, Irena, and so many others for providing me with a rich, fun and wonderful journey through a beautiful and enchanted land.

Interesting Things:

Did you know that this was the second time Eyjafjallajokull Volcano erupted this year; the first eruption occurred in March after 200 years of dormancy, when the volcano ripped a 1-km long fissure in the ice-field and threw up lava a hundred metres high. Ironically, only days before this second eruption, the Associated Press said: ” Iceland's latest volcanic eruption is coming to an end — and the unexpected tourist boom that lifted this recession-weary country's financial fortunes may be up in smoke as well.” Well, they asked for smoke and they got it.

Volcanic eruptions and their global effects are not new to Iceland. The 934 AD lava flow from the Eldgjá fissure system unleashed the largest flood of basalt on the planet in historic times. The Laki eruption in 1783 had the largest outflow of lava since then. It emitted fluoride that poisoned half of Iceland's livestock, resulting in a famine that killed approximately a quarter of Iceland's population, and thrust vast quantities of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, directly causing many deaths in Western Europe, and contributing to several years of extreme weather in Europe. It is often credited as an indirect cause of the French Revolution.

Ships moored up in many ports, effectively fogbound. Crops were affected as the fall-out from the continuing eruption coincided with an abnormally hot summer. A clergyman, the Rev Sir John Cullum, wrote to the Royal Society that barley crops "became brown and withered … as did the leaves of the oats; the rye had the appearance of being mildewed".

The British naturalist Gilbert White described that summer in his classic Natural History of Selborne as "an amazing and portentous one … the peculiar haze, or smokey fog, that prevailed for many weeks in this island, and in every part of Europe, and even beyond its limits, was a most extraordinary appearance, unlike anything known within the memory of man.

"The sun, at noon, looked as blank as a clouded moon, and shed a rust-coloured ferruginous light on the ground, and floors of rooms; but was particularly lurid and blood-coloured at rising and setting. At the same time the heat was so intense that butchers' meat could hardly be eaten on the day after it was killed; and the flies swarmed so in the lanes and hedges that they rendered the horses half frantic … the country people began to look with a superstitious awe, at the red, louring aspect of the sun."

Across the Atlantic, Benjamin Franklin wrote of "a constant fog over all Europe, and a great part of North America".

The disruption to weather patterns meant the ensuing winter was unusually harsh, with consequent spring flooding claiming more lives. In America the Mississippi reportedly froze at New Orleans.

The eruption is now thought to have disrupted the Asian monsoon cycle, prompting famine in Egypt. Environmental historians have also pointed to the disruption caused to the economies of northern Europe, where food poverty was a major factor in the build-up to the French revolution of 1789.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

Well done on managing to spell the name of the volcano, Nina. Can you actually SAY it?

Don't you just wish it had been Etna?

Nina Munteanu said...

LOL! Yeah, eh? I've been trying for two weeks to pronounce it! HAR! Everyone just says "the volcano" and we all know what they mean... LOL!

Anonymous said...

How to Pronounce Eyjafjallajokull

Welcome back Nina,


Unknown said...

Wonderful post Nina! It's a beautiful, in depth view of Switzerland;-)

Thanks for sharing!

Nina Munteanu said...

LOL! Thanks, Limberger! The sad thing is, I STILL can't pronounce it! HAHAHAHA..... I can speak five languages but this is beyond me! HAR!

Nina Munteanu said...

Thanks for the welcome back, Limberger!

Thanks, Teresa, for your kind comment! I sure enjoyed Switzerland... In fact, both Toulouse and I may be addicted to it...You tell me...

He pines for cafe creme... says that Tim Horton's and Starbucks just don't do it for him anymore...(well, they never did but he did drink them before: French espresso is hard to find in Nova Scotia...)

I keep waking up thinking I'm in the Schloss Hotel, ready for a gourmet breakfast of gourmet cheese, gourmet cold-cuts, gourmet cereal pastries and yogurt, oh and cafe creme...

We both keep saying, "Gutte appetit!" and "Das var Ausgezeichnet!"

We both miss the warm musical notes of cow bells at night...

I think we're a lost case... I'm checking Trip Advisor right now... just humoring Toulouse... or me, not sure... :)

Anonymous said...

Hey Nina! Welcome back! The Swiss countryside sounds absolutely enchanting....somewhat magical...
This was certainly a case of making lemonade out of lemons!
Well done!

Baby Brie

Nina Munteanu said...

Thanks, Baby Brie! Good words to describe Switzerland... enchanting... the Swiss countryside and mountains were completely magical...

Yeah, eh! :)

And they have the best cafe creme ever!... LOL! Oh, and pretty good lemonade too! :)

Unknown said...

Well I'm glad you made it back safe and sound. What I think is,"that noone really has to say the actual name, because everyone says VOLCANO!"

I'm glad you really had extra time there to actually stop and enjoy and smell the roses, and capture the moments with a picture.
We are all happy that you are back.

Nina Munteanu said...

Thanks, Dar! :) I'm glad to be back.... Funny how it took a volcano to let me more fully experience Switzerland. Thanks, Eyjafjallajokull! uh.... how do you say that again???....LOL!

What's really cool is that my artist friend Teresa had just posted on her blog, Surrealistic Reflections an article called "Timing is Everything"... which resonated quite closely with my experience. Sometimes we need an exterior event to force us to slow down and "smell the roses"

Here's the link, in case anyone wants to read it:

Nina Munteanu said...

Well, Nina... It's this simple: we really needed to stay longer and experience the true Switzerland, her heart and soul... so, the universe provided...

Your readers might like to read my blogpage on the Zen of Travel:

Ton ami,
Toulouse :-3

greece_traveller said...

Nice blog you have. Check out mine about Santorini Island in Greece, which was born of the eruption, of its volcano. I am sure you will be seduced by the view from every single corner on Santorini.

Nina Munteanu said...

Thanks for sharing about Santorini. Volcanoes are indeed fascinating, aren't they?