Eyjafjallajökull: all a con, or not. Who knows?

by | Apr 27, 2010

It is often in the aftermath of a crisis that the government definitively loses control of the agenda – it moves on, while the media cements its narrative on who was to blame, and why.

So it is with the ash cloud. We are told that the Met Office plane that should have been up in the air monitoring the ash cloud was undergoing a refit. As a result, many journalists are now convinced the whole crisis was a con. “Remember that ash cloud?” asks the Daily Mail. “It doesn’t exist, says new evidence.”

Jim McKenna, the Civil Aviation Authority’s head of airworthiness, strategy and policy (great combo), appears to admit the decision to close British airspace was a cock up:

It’s obvious that at the start of this crisis, there was a lack of definitive data. It’s also true that for some of the time, the density of ash above the UK was close to undetectable.

Head to the CAA website, however, and you won’t find anything on these claims. The most recent item on the ash cloud is a highly-defensive op-ed from its chairman [sic], Dame Deirdre Hutton, written three days ago. There’s nothing at all from Jim McKenna – either to explain what went wrong, or to place his quote in a broader context.

NATS stopped updates on the volcano on Friday, while the Met Office’s website is a car crash, and its latest update typifies the jargon-heavy style that the UK’s weathermen and women have made their own. Here’s a defence of the Met’s predictions in the nearest the Met comes to using plain English (more detail here):

We use multiple dispersion models endorsed by the international meteorological community. The output from the Met Office volcanic ash dispersion model has been compared with our neighbouring VAACs in Canada and France since the beginning of this incident and the results are consistent.

The results from our model have been verified by observations of volcanic ash from a variety of sources, including from instruments carried by Met Office, FAAM and NERC research aircraft, balloon and land based LIDARS.

So did the cloud exist? Was Jim McKenna the source of newspaper claims that “the maximum density of the cloud was only five per cent of the safe flying limit”? Who knows? And there seems to be little chance of the UK’s public sector telling you.

Update: Just because it’s wonderful, have a butchers at this superb video of Europe’s airports coming back to life.



  • David Steven is a senior fellow at New York University, where he founded the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children and the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a multi-stakeholder partnership to deliver the SDG targets for preventing all forms of violence, strengthening governance, and promoting justice and inclusion. He was lead author for the ministerial Task Force on Justice for All and senior external adviser for the UN-World Bank flagship study on prevention, Pathways for Peace. He is a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of The Risk Pivot: Great Powers, International Security, and the Energy Revolution (Brookings Institution Press, 2014). In 2001, he helped develop and launch the UK’s network of climate diplomats. David lives in and works from Pisa, Italy.

More from Global Dashboard

Our COVID Future: The Long Crisis Scenarios

Our COVID Future: The Long Crisis Scenarios

Created in partnership with: COVID-19 marks a turning point in the 21st century.​ Levels of uncertainty are off the chart, making predictions impossible. ​But if we can create plausible stories about different futures, we create a...

Protecting our Critical Global Infrastructure

Protecting our Critical Global Infrastructure

Earlier this week, we published Shooting the Rapids – COVID-19 and the Long Crisis of Globalisation. In the final section, we present a plan for collective action at the global level with four elements:  Firefight better – getting the emergency response...