Eyjafjallajökull one year on: What have we learned (and not learned)?

It has now been one year since the eruption that closed the skies over Europe and captured the world's attention. Before April 13-14, 2010, most people outside Iceland (or this blog) had ever heard the name Eyjafjallajökull and suddenly (much to the dismay of broadcasters everywhere), it became a household name.


We've talked about the volcano - a lot - and rightly so. The eruption at Eyjafjallajökull won the 2010 Pliny for Volcanic Event of the Year, narrowly beating out the eruption at Merapi in Indonesia. Although the eruption at Merapi might have been a bigger disaster in terms of human life and property, it didn't come close to the 24 hour media coverage that was seen during the height of the Eyjafjallajökull event. Part of that was because Eyjafjallajökull was smack in the middle of the western world, between Europe and North America, instead of in southern Asia, where most of the people affected by Merapi were not Americans or Europeans (that's the media for you). Part of it was that there was controversy surrounding Eyjafjallajökull - namely the closure of airspace over Europe. The debate broke down, as many things do, between corporations and government, with the airlines wanting a quick closure (for obvious reasons) and the EU government wanting to be more cautious. Both sides were arguing mostly the same points: (1) we don't know what different amounts of ash will do to aircraft and (2) we don't know exactly where the ash is over the continent. Now, many people came out against the EU government because of their overly cautious approach and reliance on models to predict the location of the ash plume (thanks to diligent work by the London VAAC), but really, there was no other plan on how to deal with such an eruption affecting Europe. In the hearings in the United Kingdom about the closure, it was clear that no one has truly anticipated that an eruption of this relatively small magnitude in Iceland could have such a profound impact on almost the entire European community.

Satellite image showing the ash from Eyjafjallajökull spreading over Europe on April 15, 2010.

So, rather than rehash all the finer points of the eruption - which you can see in the announcement for the 2010 Pliny, your thoughts on the eruption or the vast Eyjafjallajökull archive on Eruptions - I thought I'd take my personal stab at what we learned and didn't learn from the eruption that stopped Europe.

What we learned:

  • Volcanoes in remote locations can have a major impact on the world economy: We have already seen this during some of the eruptions in the Kuril Islands or Kamchatka, where air traffic was disrupted by ash plumes. However, the Eyjafjallajökull eruption crippled one of the busiest continents for air travel for an entire week, so the global mess for air travelers was large and long-lasting.
  • An ounce of preparation is better than a pound of recovery: Clearly, the EU was unprepared for both the style and magnitude of this event, and it might not have been the actions of the EU officials that ruffled the most feathers, but rather the apparent uncertainty about what they planned to do. However, there was obviously little cooperation between airlines and government officials, so the perceived chaos in when/where to reopen airspace seemed apparent. If there had been a plan for how to sample ash in the air, predict its location and if the airline industry had pursued research on the tolerances of ash in jet engines, then some of the chaos could have been avoided.
  • Iceland is full of surprises: Eyjafjallajökull was clearly not #1 on anyone's list of an Icelandic volcano to erupt and cause such a mess. However, volcanic activity is so common on the small island that these sorts of things happen and are likely to happen again. There might be a higher probability for an eruption at Hekla or Grímsvötn or Krafla, but there is still the chance it could be from one of those other, more anonymous volcanoes.
  • The Icelandic Meteorological Office is good: I think we need to offer a round of applause to the Icelandic Meteorological Office for their handling of the eruption. Not only did they have all the realtime monitoring that allowed us to see what was going on, but they also kept their website updated on an almost daily basis during the height of the eruption, posting compositional data, maps, images and more as the events were unfolded. They clearly understood how the internet works today and how to get good information out quickly - and show how volcano monitoring by government agencies can save lives and property as the death toll directly from the eruption was zero in Iceland.
  • Predictions can be dicey: Trying to say when the eruption would end was difficult, especially right after the eruption started. Many people (even me) said that it could last months and Europe would not see normal air travel for a long time. Well, after about a week, air travel was back and within a month or so, minus a few brief closures, especially in northern Europe, was pretty close to what is was before the eruption. Sure, airlines lost money, but it wasn't the economic apocalypse what was implied early on. 
  • The steam and ash plume from Eyjafjallajökull seen on April 14, 2010.

    What we didn't learn:

  • Disaster-mongering is a fool's errand: Anybody notice that big eruption of Katla that followed the eruption at Eyjafjallajökull within days? Me neither. Yet, we still get people insisting on trying to make any disaster into an even bigger one.
  • If left to the media, we'll only remember the economic cost and personal inconveniences: So far, many of the anniversary articles in the English-speaking media I've seen talk about your rights as air travelers during such an event or the economic impact. Too bad everyone seems to have missed the science - and there is a lot of it. Do a quick search on Google Scholar for Eyjafjallajökull since 2010, and you "only" get 495 returns. That is in one year of time since the explosive eruption started (13 months since the whole show began). There is the real story: everything we've learned about such an unexpected and high impact event. The cultural impact in fascinating as well - with museums and art about the eruption.
  • Needless to say, the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull is going to become the textbook example of how a volcano will effect the modern, technologic society of the western world in the early 21st century. It brought some of the great superpowers to their knees with a few explosions and left many people wondering why governments around the world don't have a plan for volcanic disasters, even if you're a country like the UK with no local volcanoes of your own. However, I hope it did get people, especially in government and air travel, to think about how to better deal with an eruption that has the ability to disrupt so much air traffic (ahem, Rainier … or for a better comparison, Glacier Peak?) so the next time an eruption threatens, we have a plan on how to handle the ensuing chaos.

    Top left: Eyjafjallajökull erupting on April 24, 2010.

    Yug, age 7, and Alia, age 10, both entered Let Grow's "Independence Challenge" essay contest.

    Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
    Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
    • The coronavirus pandemic may have a silver lining: It shows how insanely resourceful kids really are.
    • Let Grow, a non-profit promoting independence as a critical part of childhood, ran an "Independence Challenge" essay contest for kids. Here are a few of the amazing essays that came in.
    • Download Let Grow's free Independence Kit with ideas for kids.
    Keep reading Show less

    Four philosophers who realized they were completely wrong about things

    Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

    Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
    Culture & Religion

    Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

    Keep reading Show less

    The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

    New research establishes an unexpected connection.

    Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

    Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
    Surprising Science
    • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
    • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
    • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

    We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

    A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

    The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

    An unexpected culprit

    The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

    What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

    "We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

    "Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

    fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

    Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

    The experiments

    The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

    You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

    For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

    Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

    The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

    However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

    The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

    As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

    The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

    The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

    "We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

    Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

    Withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants can last over a year, new study finds

    We must rethink the "chemical imbalance" theory of mental health.

    Bottles of antidepressant pills named (L-R) Wellbutrin, Paxil, Fluoxetine and Lexapro are shown March 23, 2004 photographed in Miami, Florida.

    Photo Illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
    Surprising Science
    • A new review found that withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants and antipsychotics can last for over a year.
    • Side effects from SSRIs, SNRIs, and antipsychotics last longer than benzodiazepines like Valium or Prozac.
    • The global antidepressant market is expected to reach $28.6 billion this year.
    Keep reading Show less
    Scroll down to load more…