Sunday, April 18, 2010

From Iceland’s icy mountains

What a melodious placename: "Island Mountain Glacier" – Eyjafjallajökull.  Just remember that double el in Icelandic is pronounced "tl" (as in Atlantis), that jay is wye, and to purse one's lips for the last two vowels...

The fact that this particular mountain glacier has a live volcano underneath (sort of like Baked Alaska in reverse) has lead to curious consequences: the lava shooting out being instantly quenched by the ice, it fragments into exceeding small and abrasive glass fragments (being mainly silicon oxide), which have been lofted high into the atmosphere – and now float invisibly above Europe, effectually preventing jet aircraft from flying lest their engines be destroyed by them.

Fire and Ice: without the two in such proximity, the volcanic cloud would not be so uniquely dangerous.  As it is, this Viking gift (from the country that recently provided Europeans bank accounts that disappeared) may provide a modern-day saga of sorts: will the skies be closed to mass passenger transit for not just three days (as happened, for different reasons, over the USA in late 2001), but for weeks or months?

I was speculating yester-day: what if one absolutely had to get to Europe?  I think the only solution would be to fly to Beijing, then connect through to the Trans-Siberian Railway (or fly to Vladivostok and get straight on) across Asiatic and European Russia, before changing trains and getting to one's final destination in Europe that way.  For example, Vladivostok to London via rail, as a travel guidebook informs me, takes only 8½ days...

There's something in me that rather likes this idea of constraining man to stay on the ground, at least for a time.  But I do feel sorry for those whose travel plans have been disrupted, especially those unable to get home.  The airlines, too, are losing enormous amounts of money, a deleterious effect that will flow on through the worldwide economy.

What, then, if next Katla, a much larger volcano under a larger glacier (the Mýrdalsjökull), erupts, as it always has done in the past when first Eyjafjallajökull goes up?  And it must be recalled that Iceland is one of the principal volcanic provinces of the world; when Laki erupted in 1783-4, one of the greatest volcanic events of modern times, all Europe was plunged beneath a poisonous cloud for months, and a most terrible winter struck North America: the Mississippi froze over at New Orleans, and there was ice in the Gulf of Mexico...


A strange and a curious thing it is, that when the Scriptures describe the dread manifestation of God on a mountain, they often speak as if the mountain were undergoing a volcanic eruption – which is odd, because there are no volcanoes anywhere near the Holy Land.  For instance, when Elias journeyed to Mt Horeb, there was first a mighty wind that shook the mountain and broke its rocks, then an earthquake, then a fire (3 Kings xix, 11f); the author of Hebrews (xii, 18b-19a) looks back to the descent of the Lord on Mt Sinai as "a burning fire, and a whirlwind, and darkness, and storm, and the sound of a trumpet"; and Exodus itself (xix, 16,18-19a) reports the fearful scene:

And now the third day was come, and the morning appeared: and behold thunders began to be heard, and lightning to flash, and a very thick cloud to cover the mount, and the noise of the trumpet sounded exceeding loud, and the people that was in the camp, feared. ... And all mount Sinai was on a smoke: because the Lord was come down upon it in fire, and the smoke arose from it as out of a furnace: and all the mount was terrible.  And the sound of the trumpet grew by degrees louder and louder, and was drawn out to a greater length...

Similarly, an improbable mixture of fire and ice is also among the plagues with which Egypt (type of the unbelieving world) was smitten: "thunder and hail, and lightning... hail and fire mixed with it" (Exodus ix, 23b-24a) formed the seventh plague, which the Psalmist refers to as "hail and coals of fire" (Ps 17:13f), and again as "hail for rain, a burning fire in the land" (Ps 104:32).  The Book of Wisdom expatiates on this theme, even claiming that the snow and ice melted not, to shew that the fire was a supernatural manifestation (xvi, 22).  At the End, again hail and fire mingled will rain upon the earth, as the Apocalypse puts it (viii, 7).

To the contrary, in the present eruption the ice and fire are behaving more normally, the former melting to cause flooding torrents, the latter, actually molten rock, being cooled to form volcanic ash.

This mention of subglacial outburst flooding gives the excuse to mention another euphonious word:  jökulhlaup.


Who is the Patron Saint of (guarding against the deleterious effects of) volcanic eruptions?

I seem to recall that the patroness of such is St Agatha, Virgin Martyr, whose glorious merits and suffrages, implored by the people of Catania as they venerate her relics, have obtained many times of God that the lavas of nearby Mt Etna not devastate that city and the land round about.  Likewise, the relics of St Januarius are taken in procession through the streets of Naples when Vesuvius threatens...

The Dominican Breviary contains the following Benedictus antiphon for St Agatha's Day:

Paganorum multitudo fugiens ad sepulcrum Virginis tulerunt velum ejus contra ignem: ut comprobaret Dominus quod a periculis incendii, meritis Agathæ Martyris suæ, eos liberaret.
The multitude of pagans, fleeing to the sepulchre of the Virgin, carried her veil against the fire: so the Lord approved that from the perils of conflagrations, by the merits of Agatha His Martyr, He would deliver them.

St Agatha, pray for us.
St Januarius, pray for us.

From volcanic eruptions, Good Lord, deliver us.


Mark said...

I am meant to be visiting the Seminary on Friday... I have looked at rail tickets, but compared to my wee £40 flight, they are ludicrously expensive, but worse of all - not joined up at all. I have to book the British leg, and the European legs separately, and because Deutsche Bahn's website isn't clever, I still can't find out what the French leg of the journey costs! (so, I'm not going by rail)

Joshua said...

I was wondering, Mark, how you'd been getting along... yes, quiet skies are nice, but a bit restricting!

Ttony said...

I investigated the cost of going to the US on a forthcoming trip by boat. Five days on a liner from Southampton costs rather more than a business class air ticket; seven days in a merchantman from Felixstowe about the same as fully flexible economy.

It's very tempting: no jet lag and the opportunity to read.

I'd suggest to Mark a coach to Dover, foot passenger on the ferry and then train once arrived in Europe.