Warning sign on the M25
You can't read it, but this sign says "Heathrow Airport Closed". There was a similar sign at the exit for Gatwick, warning motorists that, in case they hadn't heard, Gatwick was also closed. No air traffic is leaving England, so there's no need to go to Europe's busiest airport.
Air travel in almost all parts of Europe has come to a standstill. It began in the UK at noon on Thursday, when the last flights arrived. No one knows when the volcanic ash that's causing the disruption will dissipate, but bets are it won't be before mid-week at the earliest.
I'm not sure if my friends in the US realize just what a complete halt of air travel means for Europeans, used to hopping on flights the way motorists in America hop on Interstates.
Almost everyone I know here is affected. Since the school holidays end tomorrow, many people were on holiday with their families, scheduled to return over the weekend. Many of my friends have spouses stranded in various parts of the globe. Others are stranded themselves, while others have had to postpone overseas trips.
And that's not all. Much of our produce, our fresh flowers, and our medical supplies come via air transport. Supermarket produce shelves will soon be empty of fresh veg flown in from Spain, Kenya, The Netherlands, Egypt—we'll be forced to eat local, which this time of year means lots of asparagus and potatoes. In Africa, flower growers are destroying fresh flowers destined to be sold in European markets—Europeans love their blooms.
My new contacts were due to arrive Friday or Saturday from Germany—since my old ones burn my eyes, perhaps due to volcanic ash buildup, I'm stuck with glasses. But at least I'm not a tourist, stranded in London and strapped for cash.I've not heard the sound of jet engines slowing down for their approach to Heathrow in days. I look in the sky and there are no contrails—and we've had a rare couple of days of blue, blue skies.
How is this affecting global warming, you wonder? Here's a chart, showing the daily amount of CO2 put in the air by Eyjafjallajoekull—the impossible-to-pronounce-volcano in Iceland that's causing all the trouble: 7412 tons. But how much is saved by the cancelled flights across Europe? Around 206,000 tons. (This chart was made when only 60% of European flights were cancelled; considerably more have now been cancelled.)
The economic costs are impossible to estimate, but it's almost certain that troubled airlines will need bailing out by governments if the disruption continues past mid-week, as some of the direst forecasts predict. What's needed is a change in the prevailing winds, or a cessation of the ash output. Iceland's last volcano went on spewing ash for months. And no one's predicting the Gulfstream winds to change anytime soon.
As a last resort, airlines have begun experimenting with flying planes lower, below the approximately 20,000 foot ash cloud, or higher, above 38,000 feet. They've had some success, but neither solution sounds like an option I'd like to gamble on. Frankfort Airport has attempted to open during a break in the ash cover, but again, there's no way I'd get into an airplane whose engines could be fouled up by the volcanic ash.
Meanwhile, trains and ferries are full. Stranded passengers in Europe are making do the best they can. Actor John Cleese paid a cab driver £3000 to drive him from Norway to Brussels, where he could catch the Eurostar to London.
Me, I'm just enjoying the blue skies, through ash-coated glasses.
(Note: Americans probably don't know what the title refers to: the Ashes Test in cricket, a series of cricket matches between Australia and England that occurs every other year. Let's hope the Volcanic Ashes Test doesn't happen that often.)