National Commentary

The Peak Oil Crisis: The Eruption of Eyjafjallajokull

A number of years back we were traveling along the southern coast of Iceland when in a small fishing village I noticed what appeared to be air raid sirens affixed to poles. As it was difficult to imagine that the Russians, even at their most belligerent, were planning a tactical air strike on a handful of fishermen’s cottages in the middle of the North Atlantic, I inquired of our guide as to the sirens’ purpose. To my surprise I was told that just up the valley was an enormous glacier sitting on top of an equally enormous, but temporarily dormant, volcano. Should the sirens sound it meant that the volcano was erupting and we should run for the highest mountain in sight and start climbing for our lives before a tsunami of newly melted glacier came roaring down the valley and swept us all into the sea.

The eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano last week and the subsequent halting of air traffic for five days across Europe serve as a reminder of how vulnerable our civilizations remain to forces of nature despite our seeming mastery of fossil fuels.

The last time Eyjafjallajokull erupted was in 1821-1823 and the eruptions continued for over a year. Even more alarming is that 60 years later a sister Icelandic volcano called Laki erupted for 8 months. It sent 3.4 cubic miles of lava, 8 million tons of hydrogen fluoride and 120 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the air. This eruption created environmental havoc around the earth for many years. In Britain, some 30,000 were killed by the toxic gases and in many countries still more perished from the extremes of heat and cold. There were famines in Europe, Africa and the Far East. North America underwent one of the longest and coldest winters on record with the Mississippi freezing down to New Orleans and ice forming in the Gulf of Mexico. Such is the power of a large volcanic eruption.

Scientists tell us that the melting of Iceland’s glaciers reduces pressure on the rock and allows the “hotspot” of magma below the island to break through more frequently. Thus the long term trend, even in excruciating slow geologic time of course, is for increasing volcanic activity over the Icelandic “hot spot.”

As with the droughts in China and Venezuela, the returns are not yet in on how much damage Iceland’s eruption of 2010 will ultimately cause. Volcanologists have no basis, other than past precedents, for estimating whether the eruptions will last for days, weeks, or months. History, however, seems to suggest that the current crater will not develop into anything approaching the eruptions of Laki in 934 AD and 1783 which are the two largest eruptions in terms of ash ejection in the last 1,000 years. There is however still another nearby volcano called Katla which has a history of erupting in sympathy with Eyjafjallajokull. So far Katla is showing no signs of activity, but should it erupt, it is likely to be far more dangerous and cause much more disruption than we are currently witnessing.

While Eyjafjallajokull is still erupting vigorously, the ash is no longer being blown as high into the air and much of the magma is being ejected in the form of molten lava which does not threaten European air space. However, should the volcano resume spewing ash high into the atmosphere for an extended period, there will obviously be serious economic disruptions – first in Europe and eventually all over the world. Patterns of energy demand will be affected and slowing economic activity could temporarily reduce the demand for oil products. In the last week some 100,000 flights were cancelled and the demand for jet fuel fell by two thirds. Europe typically uses some 1.2 million barrels a day (b/d) of jet fuel not counting the fuel loaded on long-haul flights bound for European destinations from around the world.

Should restrictions on flying over Europe have to be reinstated for an extended period, the reduction in demand would clearly impact the global consumption of oil which has recently been forecast in increase substantially in 2010. An equally important aspect of a significant reduction in flying over Europe is the impact on the general level of global economic activity. Already the fresh food business which relies on air transport to move produce to market has been severely impacted as has air freight in general. Overnight deliveries of documents, small packages, and parts have already been severely hampered and in a few cases have forced factories to close.

The past week has shown that even small volcanic eruptions in Iceland can do serious economic damage across Europe. Losses in the first five days of restricted air travel are currently estimated to be on the order of $1.7 billion and are likely to grow as the travel situation will take many weeks to return to normal. Without frequent and reliable air transport, discretionary travel is likely to fall precipitously. After the hundreds of thousands of travelers who are currently caught in distant lands by the eruption have made their way home, much of the global tourist industry is likely to suffer until the eruptions cease. The nature, extent, and duration of business travel will change significantly so long as air travel is restricted.

The bottom line of the last few weeks is that there will be many more factors shaping the end of the oil age than a simple geologic reduction in the amount of oil that can be pumped. We already know about “above ground factors” such as wars, nationalism, lack of investment, and their affect on global oil production and the price of oil products. It is now becoming apparent that Mother Nature in the form of droughts, earthquakes, hurricanes and erupting volcanoes is likely to have a significant voice in how the oil age ends too.


Tom Whipple is a retired government analyst and has been following the peak oil issue for several years.