A Little Dust Goes a Long Way

The April eruption of the Icelandic volcano caused the largest air traffic shutdown since World War II. The disruption in transportation made it almost seem, as Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum wrote, “as if we had gone back in time a century.”

Eventually, the planes started flying again, and the volcano dropped off our TV screens—which means that the lessons to be learned from the eruption will soon be forgotten.

Between April 16th and 21st, an estimated 95,000 flights were canceled because of because of volcanic ash in the upper atmosphere. Millions of passengers around the world were stranded as vital air corridors were declared off-limits to jet aircraft. The disruption cost airlines an estimated $200 million a day.

The source of the trouble? Tiny bits of pulverized rock less than one-half the diameter of a human hair. Volcanic ash and jet engines don’t mix. Once inside the engine, the ash melts, turns into liquid glass, and coats the engine’s vital parts.

The sigh of relief being breathed by travelers, airlines, and governments may be a bit premature. The last time this same volcano erupted, in 1821, the eruption lasted 18 months. Geologist Andy Hooper has written that “it remains a very real possibility that the volcano will continue to erupt on-and-off for months.”

What’s more, as volcanic eruptions go, this one was strictly minor league—a mere nuisance. What has volcanologists worried is its next-door neighbor, Katla. The two volcanoes tend to erupt in tandem, and a Katla eruption, according to Hooper, could make the recent one seem “trivial” in comparison. It was the Katla eruption in 1783 that led to extended crop failures and famines across Europe—an event that may have helped cause the French Revolution!

The recent eruptions, combined with the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti and even more powerful tremors in Chile, Mexico, and China, should have been seen as a rebuke to our hubris.

As Roberto Rivera recently wrote on the Colson Center website, an essential part of the modern secular worldview is the belief that by understanding how nature works, we can gain mastery over it. Thus, the mapping of the human genome was followed by talk about “taking control of our evolution.” Advances in computer technology led to talk about “improving” the human species by creating human-machine hybrids.

It didn’t matter that, hubris aside, what we know is infinitesimal compared to what we don’t know. Our confidence in our technological abilities is unbounded—we are creatures who dream of dispossessing our Creator and, as I said in a recent Two-Minute Warning, creating “the perfect society, the perfect climate, [and] the perfect person.”

Then a minor volcano coughs and brings the modern world to a standstill.

It’s a reminder that we are not in charge. Not even close. The Babels that inspire our hubris can be laid low in seconds. And the clock can be turned back to the ‘60s—that is, the 1860s.

The question is: Will we take the lesson to heart? Probably not. Acknowledging that we are not in charge requires us to submit to God. And since the Garden, the refusal to submit is what has driven our aspiration to God-like knowledge and power.

So, instead, we act as if nothing important happened, and we wait to catch the next flight.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • Nobody’s going to take our powerlessness seriously until people walk into their grocery store and find empty shelves. I had such an experience once, when I lived in Barrow, Alaska, and a volcano erupted near Anchorage, closing the airport. Since in Alaska all flights go through Anchorage, it meant that the planes stopped coming to Barrow for a few days. The store, a modern though small grocery that looks like any other grocery store on the inside, started running out of food. I can attest that it was quite a jolt to the system. Happily, the ash cleared and the planes started again before anyone started to get hungry, or had to resort to hunting.

    Maybe modern Westerners should start cleaning their rifles and studying the habits of local game.