Icelandic volcano spotlights need for global disaster risk reduction plans – UN official

22 April 2010
Plume from Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland.

The recent eruption of a volcano in Iceland, which grounded flights in Europe for nearly one week, has exposed the world’s vulnerability to such disruptive events and underscored the need for global plans to minimize fallouts in the future, a top United Nations official said today.

“We only realize how disruptive hazards can be when they have already happened,” said Margareta Wahlström, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Disaster Reduction.

Even though air travel is starting to pick up again, thousands of passengers continue to be affected, and the threat of further eruptions means even more delays are possible.

The UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) is calling on European Governments to integrate volcano risk into their air travel policies and legislation.

Through the Hyogo Framework for Action – a 10-year plan to make the world safer from disasters triggered by natural hazards adopted by 168 governments in 2005 – the agency is endeavouring to ensure greater coordination between authorities and scientists.

“This situation demonstrates that it is important to have international and regional contingency plans, in addition to local or national ones, to assess volcano risks,” Ms. Wahlström stressed.

Although the recent eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano was relatively smaller than others in the past, it caused chaos on a massive scale, according to ISDR.

Had other volcanoes in Europe – including Italy’s Vesuvius and Iceland’s much bigger Katla – erupted today, they would have wreaked much more havoc than they did in the past, said Henri Gaudru, who heads the European Volcanologist Society, speaking at a ISDR briefing in Geneva.

Scientists will meet in Tenerife, Canary Islands, next month to discuss how to manage crises in the midst of volcanoes, especially their impact on mega-cities.

“As the Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines showed us in 1991, as well as other ones since then, volcano risks must urgently be considered for their huge economic and social impacts and be integrated in urban planning, early warning systems and preparedness plans,” said Ms. Wahlström.

The International Air Transport Association has put losses stemming from European airport closures after the latest Iceland volcano eruption at nearly $2 billion, and the final economic toll is still being assessed.

Earlier this week, the UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO) warned that while eruptions from the Icelandic volcano have recently ejected less ash, that could change at any time.

The current high pressure system with weak winds does not help to disperse the ash cloud, but a stronger low pressure system is expected over Iceland towards the end of the week, changing the winds and pushing the cloud towards the Arctic, with accompanying rains resulting in a degree of “wash out” of ash at lower levels, it added.

The WMO said the plume from volcano was now reaching less than 3,000 metres, with its whiteness suggesting it contains mainly steam and little ash. “However, the volcano is liable to revert to explosive eruptions at any time,” it added.

Regarding public health, the ash has no effect except in the immediate vicinity of the volcano in Iceland, according to the UN World Health Organization (WHO).


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