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GLOBAL JOURNALIST: Mother Nature's disasters always get our attention

Friday, April 23, 2010 | 11:10 a.m. CDT; updated 8:47 a.m. CDT, Friday, May 14, 2010

Stuart Loory, Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies, Missouri School of Journalism: There is one war going on that we only pay attention to when disaster strikes, and that is the war between humans and nature. Nature strikes by doing, and excuse me for saying this, what comes naturally. Tectonic plates clash deep underground and produce an earthquake or a tsunami. Heavy rains produce floods, prolonged little or no rain produces drought, violent volcanoes erupt and spew ashes in clouds that spread in the skies over much of the world. All of this is a threat to humans as the earthquakes in Haiti and China this year or last week’s eruption in Iceland have shown. China is in a national day of mourning today (Thursday) for the 2,000 victims of the earthquake two weeks ago high on the Tibetan plateau. Haiti is still suffering grievously from the earthquake in early January that killed 230,000 people and left a million homeless. Travelers in Europe and throughout the world lost vacations, did not do business, could not get home even to have babies because clouds of ash in the atmosphere made air travel unsafe. All this raises the question of how well we humans deal with natural disasters or how good is the effort to avoid them. Let’s start in Brussels. In addition to all of the human dislocation because of the air traffic that was canceled, there is a possibility that airlines lost $2 billion. There was impact on farmers in Africa, growers in the Caribbean and manufacturers throughout the world because they could not get deliveries of the goods they needed. Did the European Union overreact to this big ash cloud in canceling all these flights?

Teri Schultz, EU correspondent and freelancer, National Public Radio and GlobalPost; Brussels, Belgium: One thing to clarify: It’s not the European Union as an entity that makes the call on airspace. Each individual EU country has the right to close its own airspace. So what the airlines are asking is whether their own governments overreacted in closing the airspace. They have some weight in their argument because earlier this week the aviation security experts acknowledged that they had only computer simulated models, and not very good ones at that, to give them advice on whether airspace should be closed. Nobody has ever dealt with as much volcanic ash before, so we don’t really know what happens to engines when they fly into volcanic ash.

Loory: I thought we do know because there have been some planes in the past that have been damaged by this volcanic ash.

Schultz: They did not have this concentration of ash tested before. So what the airlines are saying is that without such good models, we should have gone on previous incidents even if they weren’t exactly similar.

Loory: You say this is not a matter for the European Union as such, but I think I’ve read that it was the European Union that did not divide the airspace into three areas: one absolutely unsafe, one perhaps unsafe and one open to aircraft.

Schulz: It is not the European Union that makes a call on whether the airspace should be closed. It is each individual state. But I will say that when all of the European Union transport ministers met by video conference earlier this week, they decided that airspace could be open based on these three zones. So they did decide as an entity that these three zones would be set up.

Loory: This eruption started several weeks before the actual cloud erupted and drifted toward Europe. Is there anything that Icelandic seismologists or climatologists or anybody could have done to predict this and warn airlines and others in advance?

Eygló Arnarsdóttir, Web editor, Iceland Review; Reykjavik, Iceland: They have been monitoring Eyjafjallajökull for many years now, and they’ve assumed that an eruption was on its way ever since 1994. Since January, there has been a lot of seismic activity but then suddenly the volcano erupted in an unexpected place, on a mountain ridge between two glaciers.

Loory: And it was the glaciers that were to a great extent responsible for that ash cloud. Is that right?

Arnarsdóttir: As far as I understand, it is because of the magma that is breaking through the ice that this ash is created. I don’t know if they could have foreseen it. An eruption is always a surprise even if they see it coming.

Loory: Mother Nature can certainly be surprising. It was surprising not only in this volcanic eruption but also in the earthquakes that struck Haiti and China. How well have the Chinese been doing in meeting the destruction on the Tibetan plateau?

Jonathan Watts, Asia environment correspondent, The Guardian; Beijing: I think they have done a pretty good job considering what a big earthquake it was. It struck in Yushu, high on the Tibetan plateau, over 4,000 meters, where the air is very thin. It is difficult for emergency services to get in.

Loory: And today as I understand it is sort of a day of mourning throughout China. Flags are at half-staff. Regular programming on television has been canceled. Games have been banned on the Internet. Why is this? Is the Chinese government trying to show sympathy toward Tibet, which is to some extent a dissident area?

Watts: The main reason is that it was a tragedy. The earthquake that struck Sichuan in 2008 was bigger and tens of thousands of people died. There was a day of mourning after that. That was new for China at the time, but it seemed to unify the country, and in this case they’re doing it again. I think they almost feel obliged to do it, and as you say, there is definitely political sensitivities involved in this case and they could get worse because it is in the Tibetan area and relations between the central government and the Tibetan communities are often strained.

Loory: The recovery in Port-au-Prince does not seem to be going very well. Why is that?

Kathie Klarreich, reporter, ABC and Christian Science Monitor; Port-au-Prince, Haiti: Partly, you have a government that is still not up and running as it should be, and we’re asking a government that was unable to meet the needs of the country before the earthquake to now step up to the plate and be able to respond to the situation as it is today. That being said, there is an amazing response from the world at large.

Loory: The ash and the volcanic cloud over Europe has hurt the economy in Africa, particularly Kenya, seriously. Can you tell us a little bit about this and what is being done to perhaps recover?

George Nyabuga, journalism professor, University of Nairobi; Nairobi, Kenya: The volcanic eruptions in Europe have had serious consequences on Kenya’s economy. The agriculture sector alone has lost about $10 million, and tourism has lost another $10 million. I think the country is trying to mitigate those losses by selling some of those products locally. The government and the various companies that we have here are looking at other markets in Asia where we also can supply the agricultural product.

Loory: Kenya, as a result of what has happened in Iceland, may be now turning its attention economically to the East and not to the North, so Mother Nature is having an economic impact. What does that mean for Europe? Is this going to become a matter of competition, a matter of concern?

Schultz: Yes, they are talking about shortages. Food suppliers have been warning about that almost since the beginning because these are things that are flown in every day, and we had six days with no flights. Food prices are already so expensive in Europe. But some of the changes are also going to be good. Some of that is more coordination, more attention to the fact that this can happen. People are talking about how they need more reserve transportation systems so that we aren’t quite as dependent on flying.

Loory: What about the economic impact of the earthquakes in China?

Watts: In this case, the economic impact is not very great. The area that was struck is very remote. It is sparsely populated. It is not anywhere near the Eastern seaboard where the factories and the economic activity are. In China, the living standards of its own people have risen, and because its cities are getting bigger and because of climate change, it is looking more and more overseas for food and other resources, and it is looking more to Africa in particular for trade. So I think what is lost from Europe, Africa may well be able to look to China and other countries in Asia.

Loory: Iceland has had serious economic problems because of the market meltdown of two years ago. How is the volcanic eruption impacting that for better or for worse?

Arnarsdóttir: I think maybe this could have a positive impact in the long term that tourists may want to come to Iceland to see the scene of the eruption. On a smaller scale, it has affected farmers living in the area below the glacier because they probably won’t be able to produce any hay after this summer. But in the long term, the ash will probably turn into a fertilizer. And then there have been consequences, of course, for the Icelandic airlines and travel agencies and hotels.

Loory: What do you think Europe is going to do about the air-traffic situation that was created?

Schultz: It made people really sit up and take notice that there needs to be more coordination. It’s something that the EU is telling itself over and over: We need to not be 27 governments making these decisions.

Loory: How appropriate that we should discuss our relations with Mother Nature today. This is the 40th Earth Day. And the fact is that we must learn to treat our planet better.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Youn-Joo Park, Angela Potrykus, Melissa Ulbricht, Tim Wall and Megan Wiegand. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

Global Journalist Live can be seen and heard Thursday mornings at 8:30 a.m. at www.rjionline.org and there viewers can call in to 573-882-8925 or email to globaljournalistprogram@gmail.com to ask questions of the participants.


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