Many of us have had family, friends, colleagues or acquaintances stranded far from home by the eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano. (I must ask, though, can anyone other than a native resident of Iceland pronounce the name accurately?) In addition to several of my Microsoft colleagues from Europe, who were trapped in the U.S., some of my American friends were trapped in the U.K. after attending the latest International Exascale Software Project (ISEP) meeting at Oxford.
All of these individuals were traveling on business, backed by the resources of a multinational corporation, a major research university or a national government. As such, the grounding of airplanes due to ash plumes was an inconvenience but not a personal financial hardship, unlike many others for whom the lack of travel options proved to be a financial disaster.
I received regular updates via email, Facebook and Twitter, which chronicled their varied attempts to make an escape via air, land and sea. And yes, the British Isles are just that – surrounded by water – obviating the land route, save via the Eurostar chunnel train. At one point, I joked with one friend that he should consider a land route to central Europe, catch the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok, kayak across the Bering Strait to Alaska, then drive down the Alaskan Highway. Failing that, the backup plan would have been the Orient Express. (Alas, it no longer runs.)
Beyond highlighting the power of natural events to overwhelm human infrastructure, the volcanic eruption vividly illustrated the global interdependence of our social structures, economies and transportation systems. It also illuminated the importance of accurate, predictive atmospheric circulation models, yet another example of the need for high-performance computing, coupled with real-time sensor data and statistical data assimilation.
Despite the limitations on travel and transport of goods, international collaborations continued with only modest impact. Teleconferencing, videoconferencing, email, instant messaging and other electronic communication mechanisms bind us together in amazing ways. Indeed, I often know more about friends on the other side of the world than I do some of my neighbors down the street. Such is the nature of our global village.