Ash cloud travel insurance / why scientists should blog

I was quoted on the Daily Telegraph website at the weekend, in an article about the number of travel insurance companies whose policies cover volcanic ash.  I’d answered some questions from the author by email, then he told me when it was published so I could see how it turned out.  You can read the article here:

The article includes lots of good information and gets a big thumbs-up for explaining that the much-bigger 2011 Grímsvötn eruption caused little disruption compared to Eyjafjallajökull 2010, but I thought that the general tone was a bit too alarmist.

I was also interested to see how my quotes were used.  The following line in my email:

Hekla and Katla are both ‘overdue’ for an eruption e.g. the time since their last eruption is longer than the average time between other recent eruptions.

appeared in the article as:

Hekla and Katla are both overdue for an eruption.

The words are mine, but the message is different and without the explanation it seems a lot more urgent.  Katla has been ‘overdue’ since before I was born.  No real harm is done, and perhaps I am being a control-freak, but no volcanologist wants to be associated with scaremongering, either.

This experience sums up a big reason why scientists should blog.  News media have limited space, overly-enthusiastic headline writers and demanding advertisers.  Blogs don’t.  They provide all the space scientists need to explain new research, including all the complexities and limitations, and what they write is exactly the information that the reader gets.

Ash cloud insurance

The article also made me think about the concept of ash cloud insurance.  Some companies now cover volcanic ash-related claims, some don’t, and others charge a special supplement of up to £10.

All insurance is a form of gambling.  If you were to bet £10 that your £1,000 holiday would be cancelled, because the airport was closed by volcanic ash on the day that you were supposed to leave, you would only be better off in the long run if the chances of this happening were more than 1 in 100.  Your 99 ‘losses’ of £10 each would be cancelled out by one ‘win’ of £1000.

Planes have been forbidden to fly through volcanic ash for about 20 years now.  In that time, there have been six eruptions in Iceland (Grímsvötn 1996, Grímsvötn 1998, Hekla 2000, Grímsvötn 2004, Eyjafjallajökull 2010, Grímsvötn 2011).  Because of these, at least some UK airports were closed for about 10 days in total (~8 during Eyjafjallajökull 2010, ~2 during Grímsvötn 2011).  Therefore, the chances of flights being cancelled on any given day are somewhere in the region of 1 in 730.  This is equivalent to just 0.14 in 100, so that extra ash cloud fee is looking pretty expensive.

This is a simplistic analysis, and things are obviously a bit more complicated in real life, but you get the idea.  In gambling in general, the house wins in the end.  In ash cloud insurance, the house can win big.

Further reading

If you want to learn about this topic in more detail, here are my answers to the emailed questions in full:

1. How likely is it that Eyjafjallajokull will erupt in the foreseeable future?

Not that likely.  There has been little seismic activity there since the eruption ended and previous eruptions have been hundreds of years apart.

2. If it does erupt do you think it’s likely that we will see similar levels of disruption to the 2010 eruption?

Definitely not. The changes in rules for aviation during the E2010 eruption mean planes can fly in much higher ash concentrations than they used to be able to.

3. Are there any other volcanos that are likely to erupt in the near future, which could cause major travel and local disruption?

In general, we would expect an eruption in Iceland every ~5 years and a direct hit from ash every ~20 years.

Hekla and Katla are both ‘overdue’ for an eruption e.g. the time since their last eruption is longer than the average time between other recent eruptions.  Check the Smithsonian website for details.  Of these, a Katla eruption could be very damaging within Iceland:

The amount of travel disruption would depend on the length and size of the eruption.  A long eruption would be much more disruptive.

Other explosive eruptions from ice-covered volcanoes could produce a lot of ash, too, but would hopefully be short-lived:

Large lava-producing fissure eruptions, such as Laki (from the Grímsvötn system) and Eldgjá (from the Katla system) are the worst case scenario as they could last months and release large quantities of toxic gas.  But these are rare (e.g. once per 500 years).

4. Finally, to what extent do you believe that the early warning technology that has been developed by the Norwegian Institute of Air Research will prove successful?

I think that this method has potential and I think that Easyjet deserve credit for investing in research and technology.  The idea behind it is the same as satellites currently use to recognise ash clouds and the main scientist involved (Fred Prata) is a real expert in this field.  I’m looking forward to them announcing results of their tests to show how well it works.

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  1. hugh tuffen says:

    Very nice article John, thanks for posting and showing how your original messages were “sexed up” for the Telegraph article. It’s no surprise to me that a journalist, wanting a sensationalist story, has conveniently ignored quotation marks and the second part of a sentence that provided a little context.

    Of course it’s great when satirical comedians deliberately misquote politicians by stitching together their separate words to make surreal pronouncements. Without wanting to be paranoid, we should check that our messages don’t contain anything that could be easily misquoted either through laziness or design. I’ve definitely slipped up with this in the past. For example, if one said “I would murder to have had seismic data for Katla spanning 1910 to 1918” then there could be some interesting headlines!

  2. Adrian says:

    I can’t believe they called you Mr Stevenson… the shame!

    I know a great PR guy by the way.

    Keep up the good work, Ado

  3. Pingback: Sources of reliable information about large Icelandic fissure eruptions | Volcan01010

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