Be sure to check out our amazing Magnum Photos gallery on volcanoes.
Did you know that volcanic ash can bring down airplanes? I didn’t. Nor did I know that there were volcanoes in Europe capable of spewing so much of the stuff into the atmosphere. But since last week, when airports in Britain—and then Germany, France, Poland, Austria, Switzerland, and Scandinavia—began to shut down because of the ash emitted by Eyjafjallajökull, an unpronounceable volcano in Iceland, an army of experts has arisen to explain how floating lava dust damages engines.
Suddenly, almost everyone seems to have become an expert. A friend with no previous interest in airline mechanics explained over the phone how two planes had already been affected. Another proffered a detailed description of the scientific process by which the ash enters the engine, melts from the heat, and turns back into stone—not what one wants inside one’s airplane engines, really.
Others have become mystics. A British friend sees this as “judgment for the bad things we have done to the Earth.” Another thinks this is the beginning of many years of volcanic activity, thus heralding the end of civilization as we know it. Poles, unsurprisingly, are spooked by the coincidence of the ash cloud with the funerals of their president and other leaders who died in a strange and sad plane crash last weekend. Among others, the Icelandic volcano prevented the U.S. president from attending President Lech Kaczynski’s funeral in Krakow on Sunday. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany also called to make her apologies from Italy, where the leader of the largest European economy was slowly making her way home across the Alps by car.
Though it is uncanny, I do understand why some want science to explain this odd event and why others see the revenge of the volcano gods. I live in Poland, and so I have spent the last several days at funerals and memorial services, listening to people trying to make sense of an utterly pointless airplane tragedy. This dust cloud isn’t that kind of tragedy. Nevertheless, the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull could continue into next week, next month, or next year. That would turn the volcano into one of those inexplicable natural events, which, like earthquakes and tsunamis, change the economics and politics of an entire region. No wonder we suddenly feel the need to focus on the scientific and mystical significance of wind patterns, magma, and dust.
Already, the events of the last several days have revealed that we rely on air travel for far more things than we usually imagine. Things like supermarkets—all that fresh fruit—and florists. Things like symphony performances, professional soccer matches, and international relations. In fact, “European integration,” as we have come to understand it, turns out to be utterly dependent on reliable air travel. Over the last two decades—almost without anyone really noticing it—Europeans have begun, in at least this narrow sense, to live like Americans: They move abroad for work, live for a while in one country, and then move to another, eventually going home or maybe not. They do business in countries where they don’t know the language, go on vacation in the Mediterranean and the Baltic, visit their mothers on the weekends. Skeptics who thought the European single market would never function because there would be no labor mobility in Europe have been proved wrong.
But if, as some are now predicting, European air travel were to become unreliable for an indefinite period, all this would change. The English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean would suddenly seem deeper, the continent of Europe wider and longer—almost as if we had gone back in time by a century.
Within living memory, things were very different. By coincidence, I recently visited Ellis Island with my son, and I was struck by the photographs on display there. They showed the courage, fear, and determination on the faces of people who had arrived there in 1890 or 1900 from faraway places like Warsaw, knowing they might never be able to return.
A few days later, we hopped a plane to Warsaw ourselves, thinking nothing of it. What a different world it would be if that kind of travel suddenly became impossible, or even unreliable, once again.