Back at the height of volcano-mania, I wrote that “Eyjafjallajökull’s ill temper been an unexpected object lesson in the complexity and interconnectedness of our environment, technology, and social networks.” Jason Goldman of The Thoughtful Animal added further dimensions in his post Intelligence, Cancer, and Eyjafjallajökull. But why stop there?
Taking up that torch is Lee Billings, longtime Seed Magazine editor, expert of all things exo- and heir to my “Week in Review” column. In this week edition, Ashes to Ashes, he’s fleshed out the ways that Eyjafjallajökull demonstrates the “fragile complexity” of the modern world.
Lee keys off a study published in last week’s Nature that demonstrates why linking two resilient networks makes the resultant network unstable:
Buldyrev’s team modeled how disruptions percolate through a tightly linked pair of idealized interdependent networks, and found a counter-intuitive result: The failure of even a small number of nodes in one network can cause additional failures in the second. These failures can then feed back into the first network and cause yet more node failures. In other words, the greatest strength of an interdependent network in isolation is also the greatest weakness of interdependent networks as a whole. Two closely linked, highly resilient systems can suffer catastrophic failure through initially small disruptions that would have been essentially harmless to either network individually. What’s true for two linked networks presumably holds for larger assemblages.
Which brings us back to Eyjafjallajökull. Like all of Iceland’s volcanoes, this one is fueled by the tectonic spreading of the Atlantic seafloor and a “hotspot” of upwelling material from the Earth’s deep interior. This confluence of geology has caused periodic eruptions for more than ten thousand years; on human timescales, there’s nothing new about it. On the other hand, only in the last half-century has flinging winged tubes of steel and aluminum through the air become a common method of high-speed transportation. Mix this development with increasingly powerful and ubiquitous information technology and telecommunications networks, stir, and at a stroke all is transformed.
And now that it seems that Eyjafjallajökull’s is releasing the world from its ashen grip, this is a good opportunity to give another shout out to Erik Klemetti at Eruptions, who continues to his indispensable volcano coverage: Taking stock in the Eyjafjallajökull eruption and its aftermath.
If you haven’t been following along, check his Eyjafjallajökull archives, which has more than 30 posts, the first of which is from March 4. If there’s been more comprehensive coverage of this world changing event anywhere, I’d like to see it.