Volcanic systems thinking

General systems thinking and the effects of a volcano outburst

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I believe testing is about looking at things from as many perspectives as you can. Testing is also about relating things to one another, seeing things in a greater context.  In that sense you could say that testing is applied systems thinking. 

Years ago, Michael Bolton pointed me to the amazing book “Introduction to general systems thinking” by Jerry Weinberg. Actually, he pointed me to practically every publication by Jerry Weinberg – I’m still trying to prioritise my reading list. The book taught me that taking a holistic view of a system within its environment, may enable us to see patterns of behavior/actions and recognize interactions and interdependencies among its components. That way, we can better understand the system, maybe even predict how it will evolve over time.

The recent volcanic eruptions of the Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland provide a great example of (and also an exercise in) real-life general systems thinking and how several systems are possibly interconnected. I started wondering… What can the possible consequences of the recent volcanic eruption be, worldwide? There is a fair chance that other volcanoes nearby will erupt too. Scientists say history has proven that when the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupts, the Katla volcano follows — the only question is how soon. And Katla, located under the massive Myrdalsjokull icecap, threatens disastrous flooding and explosive blasts when it blows.

If we can rely on history repeating itself, we’re onto something big. Let’s look at a true story. In June 1783, the eruption of the Icelandic Laki volcano was the start of a chain of unlikely events that affected everyone’s lives:

The immediate impact was catastrophic: around 25% of the Icelandic population died in the famine and fluorine poisoning after the eruptions ceased. Around 80% of sheep, 50% of cattle and 50% of horses died because of dental and skeletal fluorosis.

The rest of Europe soon followed:

  • A thick, poisonous smog cloud floated across the jet stream, resulting in many thousands of deaths throughout 1783 and the winter of 1784. Inhaling sulfur dioxide gas caused victims to choke. 
  • The thick fog caused boats to stay in port, unable to navigate.
  • Weather patterns started changing across western Europe:
    • The summer of 1783 was the hottest on record at that time. 
    • Severe thunderstorms with hailstones even killed cattle.
    • In 1784, a most severe winter caused 8,000 deaths in the UK.
    • During the melting that followed in spring, all of Europe reported severe flood damage.

And these were only the short term effects. The meteorological impact of the Laki eruption resonated on, contributing significantly to several years of extreme weather in Europe and the rest of the world:

  • In New Orleans, the Mississipi river froze, and ice started appearing in the gulf of Mexico.
  • African and Indian monsoon circulations weakened, leading to precipitation anomalies over the Sahel that resulted in low flow in the river Nile.
  • In France, a surplus harvest in 1785 caused poverty for rural workers.
  • For years afterwards, severe droughts followed. There were a series of bad winters and summers, including a violent hailstorm in 1788 that destroyed crops.
  • All this contributed significantly to the build up of poverty and famine that eventually triggered the French Revolution in 1789.

Wow. Time-out. Really? Could it be that the eruption of an Icelandic volcano lies at the basis of the French revolution, six years later? Since all these seemingly independent systems (meteorological, economic, agricultural and sociological) *are* connected, that’s perfectly plausible. Apparently, the indirect and long-term consequences of the eruption have greater impact than the initial effects of the event. Even art was affected. The most beautiful sunsets started appearing in late 18th-century paintings.

And what were the effects of the French revolution again? The abolition of Feudalism, for starters. The creation of a new order based on the famous ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man’. The main theme of the French Revolution, ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’, later became one of the most famous political dogmas across the world. You could say that the Revolution paved the way for democracy. It brought about a lot of economic and social reforms, not only in France, but across Europe. Culture was also affected, at least in the short term, with the revolution permeating every creative endeavour. It changed the face of Europe: national identities joined forces, everywhere. In short: the revolution helped shape the future course of the world.

If we now think about the current eruptions of that rather friendly tongue-twister called Eyjafjallajökull, we notice that there are many more systems in play than there were in 1783. There’s commercial aviation and worldwide travel now; both of them fuel our economies and came to an abrupt stop. Airline stocks dropped rapidly. All this resulted in massive economic losses and temporary unemployment.  Several events are being cancelled because people cannot get there in time. People are trapped abroad or forced to stay at home. And these are only the short-term effects. I wonder what this year’s summer will be like. I already look forward to walking or skating across the channel to visit London. Or maybe throw a snowball or two at the gendarmes of Saint-Tropez.

And that’s just Eyjafjallajökull. Not Katla, not Laki. Just sayin’.

9 thoughts on “Volcanic systems thinking”

  1. Yes, Jerry’s “intro to systems thinking” is a great book for a tester.

    It helps us understand that large or complex systems need modelling to help understand them, but that brings its own set of complications.

    When our modelling becomes fixed and the way we look at the product, risks and problems becomes tunnelled then we open the door to “black swans”. (Another good book for a tester.)

    So, one lesson is to be aware of your model, re-assess your assumptions (models) and risks periodically.

    1. I just checked back on the prices on Amazon. Wow!
      Hardcover new: $235.64, used $5.91. Paperback new: $225.53, used $69.98.
      Looks like something’s not right here… I bought the new paperback for around 30 dollars, shipping from US to Belgium included, in january 2008. I don’t really know what the difference is between the silver anniversary edition and the earlier ones.

  2. First of all, I’m impressed that you can spell the name of that volcano!

    I didn’t know all that about the Laki volcano and its ripple effects. Fascinating! I know that even now, the current volcanic ash cloud has effects on industries beyond air travel. There was a maritime captain on my plane, I wonder if he has been able to make it to Hamburg so he can pilot his container ship around the North Sea. If not, there are probably a lot of deliveries that will be late. I heard about the flower industry in Kenya devastated because they can’t deliver these perishable items to the market in Europe.

    James Carr was just Tweeting about future thinking, this is an interesting case for it!

  3. Wonderful and scary all at the same time, yet my only thought is along the following; The meteorological impact of the Laki eruption in June 1783 may have contributed to the French Revolution a few years later, but it did not cause it.
    In the same way that one thing can have many repurcussions, one thing also ahs many things that contribute to causing it. I dont dispute at all that the 1783 eruption may have had indirect effects that contributed to the French disagreeing with each other, but I have have to insist that there were undoubtedly over incidents (short and long term) that affected their instigation of a civil war.
    Expanding a little, if you accept that different systems all interact, affect each other and have inter-dependancies, then the group of systems could be considered to be one system, your viewpoint depends on scale.

    1. Hi David. Of course I don’t think that the Laki eruption is the only cause of the French Revolution, that would indeed be a little far-fetched. The eruption was largely responsible for crop failures and famine, which *was* one of the causes of the revolution. But there were indeed other causes: ideological, economical (high debt, high intrest rates, high taxes). I wonder what would have happened in France without the large-scale starvation. Would the revolution have taken place? Personally I think it would, but years later. I do believe that the famine speeded up the process.
      As for the idea that it all could be considered one system: interesting, and true. Depending on the “zoom factor”, the number of systems would vary. But I tend to see meteorological and – let’s say – sociological/economical systems as different systems.

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