Sustainability 56: Iceland's Eyjafjalljokull Volcano
After lying dormant for almost two centuries, Iceland’s Eyjafjalljokull volcano, which had been simmering for weeks, erupted with awesome force on the morning of April 14th. Within hours, farmers and their families for miles around the peak were evacuated ahead of the coming floods of flash-melted glacier water. Then, the sulphuric scent of rotten eggs washed over them, accompanied by the sometimes fine, sometimes jagged and gritty, and often toxic volcanic ash expelled by the powerful puncture of Earth’s crust.
So what can Eyjafjaljokull teach us about sustainability? First, as with so many other massive natural calamities, like the December 2004 tsunami wave striking Banda Aceh, Indonesia, or the August 2005 landing of hurricane Katrina on New Orleans, or the January 2010 earthquake near Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the first thing we learn is to get out of the way, quickly — if at all possible — protecting ourselves and others as much as we can along the way.
We must therefore learn to design sustainable cities and buildings, but also sustainable human networks and societal systems. We must be able to rely on appropriate alarm systems, emergency response networks, communications systems, building designs, and well designed and relatively secure dams, levees, railways, roads, airports, waterways, etc. We would also do well to maintain a modicum of flexibility in our various infrastructure and transportation systems, to allow us adaptability in the face of such natural havoc.
Next, we must understand that we may be exacerbating not only the effects of such natural calamities but also their frequency. For example, as we allow global warming to continue, we unwittingly allow glaciers and ice caps to melt and thin, thereby removing the heavy ‘cork’ in some volcanoes’ ‘bottles’, while also affecting the reliability of meltwater that many communities across the globe rely on to sustain themselves.
As we increasingly effect climate change, and as we increasingly alter the planet’s air quality, tree stands, other natural vegetation, land forms, patterns of watercourses, and amounts of impervious surfaces, we may well be contributing to extremes of weather across the globe, whether rainfall, flooding, landslides, wildfires, hurricane or tornado formation, drought or desertification.
We might do well to adopt the same adage for planetary health that many medical professionals follow in dealing with human health: first, do no harm.