One of my most vivid memories of 9/11 was not the black smoke billowing up from the Pentagon a few miles to the north of my house. What still haunts me from that day and those immediately following was how perfectly blue, cloudless and empty was the sky above Washington DC. Empty of airplanes.
I lived just under the flight path to Reagan National Airport on the Potomac River. Except for a few hours overnight, the roar of jet engines sounded every few minutes over my house. You get used to it. It’s normal, reliable, consistent. When it disappears the silence is lovely – but weird.
Reagan National was closed for a number of days after 9/11 and because of the circumstances, it was weird and frightening. The empty blue sky that should have been glorious was somehow ominous.
Fast forward nine years to my current home in West London, once again, ironically under a flight path this time to Heathrow Airport, hub to global air travel and some of the biggest, loudest jetliners in the world.
For four days now, Heathrow’s been closed, along with the rest of the UK’s airports. This is not a man-made terror crisis. It’s mother nature. A plume of corrosive ash is wafting over the UK from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland.
Out here in the west of the city, we can’t see any ash and we’ve been loving the quiet of the no-fly decree. Spring is finally here after a long cold rainy winter and this week the sky is blue, cloudless – and completely empty of airplanes. It’s weird. The sky looks so big. Tweeters and bloggers, including me , are commenting and posting pictures of our blue empty sky.
But it’s not ominous, like 9/11. Is it?
Or are we on the cusp of a slow-motion disaster – and an opportunity – that we are just being slow to awake to?
Eyjafjallajökull could keep erupting for months. The global economy is dependant on air travel. What is the impact on the island nation of Great Britain of an extended ban on air transportation?
Thousands of Britons are stranded overseas. Thousands of non-Brits are stuck here.
British agriculture and industry can’t export their goods.
Businesses dependent on imports – food, autos, industry – can’t get orders delivered.
Meanwhile, the three parties vying for power in the UK national elections to be held on May 6 seem to be ignoring the ash crisis, even though it is the burning issue in the blogosphere and twitterverse.
In the days since the UK’s airspace was closed, none of them have grasped it as a campaign issue. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has addressed it only as the leader of government, saying he is working to get the airspace opened again “as soon as possible.”
But what if this is this a tipping point for global commerce and for transportation technology?
Will a prolonged hit to our ability to use air travel spur the invention of new ways to travel? Faster oceanic cargo delivery maybe? Sub-space travel the goes up and over the normal 18,000 to 33,000 foot jet highways? A return to greater use of rail? More tunnels like the Chunnel?
And the global economy. Will the “buy local” movement become a necessity and not an option any more?
The BBC today has a nice piece on how volcanic activity has had history-making impact in the past.
Beyond that not much is being said this beautiful spring weekend about the long term impact of the ash crisis. Perhaps it will blow over while we are enjoying these beautiful quiet empty skies.