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The global impact of Iceland’s volcano

By Laurie Bennett

April 21, 2010 at 10:20am

It’s the butterfly effect, but bigger and smokier.

The cloud of ash from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano caused the cancellation of thousands of flights for travelers; shortened the guest list at the Polish president’s funeral; cost airlines at least $200 million a day; and shook the already fragile economies of countries across Europe.

The world was different when the volcano last blew, in 1821. Volcanic ash didn’t stop ships. Markets didn’t rely on same-day deliveries from exporters on the other side of the globe.

In the age of complex, high-speed networks, a remote volcano in the North Atlantic can halt travel and trade in urban centers thousands of miles away.

World leaders were prevented from attending the funeral of Polish President Lech Kaczynski. A fact-finding team had to abort its mission in the war crimes trial of former Liberian leader Charles Taylor. Kenyan farmers had to destroy tons of flowers and vegetables because they couldn’t ship them to Europe. British tourists failed to return home in time to register for the May 6 general election.

Here in the U.S., wedding planners scrambled to find alternatives to the Dutch tulips that didn’t arrive at the New York’s flower district. BMW, unable to get parts, cut production at its South Carolina plant. Runners stranded in their home countries missed the Boston Marathon.

European airlines, likening their losses to those suffered by U.S. airlines after 9-11, are seeking a government bailout. The European Commission has launched a study into the impact on the airlines and the broader economy.

The fallout will continue long after Eyjafjallajokull stops spewing smoke.

Sources consulted to assemble the volcano map include:

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