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I’m guessing Bobby Jindal is rethinking his position on volcano monitoring about now. Just one eruption in one remote location has brought half of the Northern Hemisphere to a standstill. And it isn’t done yet. Estimates are the ash cloud from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano will completely circle the globe, eventually crossing North America and returning to Iceland.
How can just one volcanic eruption have such a wide-ranging impact on the environment? Apparently quite easily. As we have seen in the past with eruptions of the Phillipines’ Pinatubo in 1991 and Alaska’s Novarupta in 1912, volcanic eruptions are some of the most powerful of nature’s cataclysms. Though not as physically devastating as the recent earthquakes in Haiti, Mexico, and China, the Icelandic eruption has a much longer geographic and economic reach. Losses to business will be measured in the billions before this is over. Airports across Europe have been shut-down at a cost of hundreds of millions. Passengers, freight, and mail are stranded. The effect of breathing the ash is as yet unknown, but if the Mount St. Helens eruption of 1980 is any guide potentially millions of people will be harmed in the long run.
But this is only nature doing its thing. Add to the earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions the effect humans have on the environment and you have a larger disaster to deal with. Recently a massive “plastic slick” was discovered in the mid-Atlantic, the little brother of the one that has killed some of the richest eco-systems in the mid-Pacific. These plastic collection points result from convergence of ocean currents – currents that also cause plankton and other nutrients to collect in the same places. These areas used to be a paradise for ocean life, from the smallest micro-shrimp to the largest whales. Now they are a dead-zone polluted by degrading shopping bags and water bottles – a poisonous sludge that grows larger every day.
Now tack-on carbon pollution, radioactive wastes from industry and medicine, lead residues, pesticides and antibiotics, the biocides from the anti-barnacle paint on the bottoms of ship hulls, petroleum, etc. etc. etc.
The question isn’t why are we spending money monitoring the environment, the question is why aren’t we spending more, and why aren’t we listening to the people doing the monitoring? If just one Icelandic volcano can ruin a hemisphere’s whole day, what are all of these environmental factors doing collectively? And while we won’t be able to control volcanoes any time soon, we can do something about the junk we spew into the environment. We can even turn that into an industry and make a living at it. All we have to do is want to.