In the politically-incorrect words of a dear friend, “Technology is still Nature’s bitch.” The eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland has caused the grounding of thousands of planes across Europe, from Ireland to Finland, with shut-downs spreading around the world. Air travel in Europe and beyond screeched to a halt in the face of a threatening cloud of volcanic ash, dust and glass that could render a 747 jet powerless in minutes. Volcanic ash can paralyze a jet engine and damage windshields and other surfaces. The effects of the ash cloud are expected to hinder air travel for several days; the affected area is likely to spread as the debris drifts east and south. The ash is floating at 18,000 to 33,000 feet above the earth. It does not pose an immediate health hazard due to its height, but it makes you think that what goes up, must come down…eventually.
This magnificent reminder of the unpredictability of planetary forces points out not just the powerlessness of human beings in the face of nature, but also reminds us of the existence of the most improbable and high-impact events, known as black swans. A black swan is the kind of event that is considered to be highly unlikely, but if it were to occur, has enormous impact on a system or a society (See Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s book of the same name.) Black swans can ruin vacation plans, long-held strategies, machinery, business negotiations, and lives. And, by definition, they do occur. They just don’t arrive on cue.
What could change due to this kind of event? The eruption of Krakatoa volcano in Indonesia in 1883 had long-term effects on the climate, affecting ocean temperature and sea level well into the 20th century. The eruption and subsequent tsunami killed upwards of 30,000 people. While the current Iceland eruption does not come close to the power of Krakatoa (which was felt hundreds of miles away), it does make you think about how precariously balanced we are in this space, and how each day could change our lives, and even life on earth forever.
Here’s footage of the eruption, taken from a plane…before they were all grounded.
What can we learn from this black swan event? While preparing for likely events is wise, we also need to cultivate the mind set required to deal with the unexpected, the unlikely, even the well-nigh impossible. If we live with the idea that change is the only certainty, and that unexpected, radical change is also pretty much bound to happen at some point, maybe we can prepare to be surprised.
Photo: Still from Youtube video of Iceland volcano by kadamatful.
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