James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Volcano

  • OK, There Actually Is More to Say About Volcanic Ash

    The Icelandic volcano has been busier than we thought.

    It seems that the evocative plane-versus-volcanos graph I mentioned yesterday was not exactly correct. An update today indicates that the estimate of how much CO2 the Iceland volcano was putting out was low by, ummmm, a factor of ten. The revised graph:


    Explanation of the changed estimate from the original source, InformationIsBeautiful, here. Embarrassing -- as the site's authors put it, "some shame for us"-- but to their credit they're going fully public with the correction.

    While we're at it, reader Colin Seftor, an atmospheric scientist who helped develop the "TOMS" monitoring system mentioned below, has another improvement to suggest for the USGS ash-fall map that I mentioned here (and ran a previous comment on here):
    The map from the USGS is a rather odd one.  I suppose it shows the area of direct ash fall from the 1980 eruption, but it doesn't indicate the area affected by ash clouds lofted high into the atmosphere (and that could, therefore, be hazardous to airplanes).  [And of timely interest right now.]
    Over the last twenty years or so, techniques have been developed to detect (and track) volcanic ash from satellites.  One such technique uses measurements from satellite sensors designed to determine the amount of ozone in the atmosphere (such as the Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer, or TOMS). An example of TOMS data used to detect and track the movement of ash clouds from the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens can be found here: [after the jump] 

    More »

  • Last Ash Update for a While

    Some planes start flying above the ash plume.

    I don't know what the European aviation authorities will do tomorrow, but here are two interesting developments:

    The British weather office is reporting "no significant ash above FL350." FL350, or Flight Level 350, is about 35,000 feet. (For another time: why it's not exactly 35,000 feet.) Not sure how they can be confident of this, but it's significant especially for planes flying over Europe en route some place else. The latest map, containing the altitude info. Click for larger.

    Thumbnail image for VAG_1271634757.png

    Also, our old friend FlightRadar24 is showing some airline flights in progress over Europe, at altitudes around FL350. For instance, a little while ago, this United flight en route from Dubai to Washington Dulles. (Click to see in detail.) That's the plane with the dark blue trail. The light blue crosses are airports. The other activity is, of course, centered on Istanbul.

    Screen shot 2010-04-18 at 11.29.47 PM.png

    So, who knows what tomorrow brings. That's it on this topic from me for a while. Back to "real" work. Thanks to Krishna Kumar, watching these developments at the same time I was.

  • Three Reader Critiques: On Ash, CO2, спам

    The Internet shows its self-correcting powers yet again.

    1) A reader begs to differ with the USGS ash fall map mentioned here:

    The USGS map that you post shows the 1980 Mt. St. Helens ash plume as floating East across Washington and Idaho, and essentially stopping at the Montana border.  As someone who was a 16-year old high school student in Missoula, MT, at the time, I'd like to say that this is inaccurate. 

    Missoula and the areas around it were deluged by between .5 and 1 inch of fine ash, which covered everything.  The entire town ground to a halt, because nobody knew what was in the ash, and because the air pollution readings (Missoula is one of those mountain towns that suffers from frequently poor air-quality due to temperature inversions) were exceeding the highest levels on the charts by a factor of ten.  Even the local schools closed (and this is Montana - you don't close school for any normal "weather" conditions).  I can remember literally hosing off the street outside my house with my siblings, all wearing surgical masks, which the local hospitals were giving out to those brave/foolhardy enough to venture out into the eerie and silent city.  

    2) Another dares raise the question: what are the CO2 implications of this whole volcano/ aviation mess? Since like me he is an aviation buff, he has mixed feelings about the results shown by InformationIsBeautiful, here:


    3) Reader George Bazhenov, in Russia, answers this item with the reassuring news that the Nigerian spammers are still doing fine:

    I read your subject article with interest because some time ago my spam box looked very much like yours but now it shows a lot of spam in English. I have no explanation of this. By the way, most Russian-language letters shown on the screenshot that you published offer inexpensive mail distribution, i. e., more spam.

    Secondly, the Nigerians are now operating in Russia - two of my friends who do not speak English have recently asked me to translate letters from Nigeria which they received via email.
  • Your Morning Volcanic Ash Update

    Volcanic ash: not our friend.

    A useful fact sheet from the USGS on the wonders of volcanic ash. (Thanks to reader MG in Hawaii.) Graphic of the ash fall from the Mount St. Helens eruption thirty years ago, and likely ash patterns of past eruptions in the western United States:

    On effects of the ash as it drifts down:

    Volcanic ash can cause internal-combustion engines to stall by clogging air filters and also damage the moving parts of vehicles and machinery, including bearings and gears. Engines of jet aircraft have suddenly failed after flying through clouds of even thinly dispersed ash....Cars driving faster than 5 miles per hour on ash-covered roads stir up thick clouds of ash, reducing visibility and causing accidents.

    Ash also clogs filters used in air-ventilation systems to the point that airflow often stops completely, causing equipment to overheat. Such filters may even collapse from the added weight of ash, allowing ash to invade buildings and damage computers and other equipment cooled by circulating outside air. Agriculture can also be affected by volcanic ash fall. Crop damage can range from negligible to severe, depending on the thickness of ash, type and maturity of plants, and timing of subsequent rainfall. For farm animals, especially grazing livestock, ash fall can lead to health effects, including dehydration, starvation, and poisoning.
    Meanwhile FlightRadar24.com shows practically no action for airports north of Istanbul, except for what are presumably two low-altitude relocation flights in northern Europe, as mentioned yesterday. Flight Radar says it's so overwhelmed by viewer traffic that it can no longer provide detailed information about each flight, including altitude and heading.


    Today's big-picture point: the reminder that a development no one would have included in a "problems to worry about" or "events that will shape the news" list for 2010 may end up having profound economic and other effects.

    : An interesting hour-by-hour animation of the plume's initial dispersion, from the European Space Agency, here. Thanks to reader RG. Also my discussion yesterday with Guy Raz, on Weekend All Things Considered, here.
  • Live Link to the European Air Traffic Monitor (updated)

    All quiet in the skies over Western Europe -- except for BER669P!

    As mentioned yesterday, the real-time link to FlightRadar24 is here, and it is full of interesting info. For example, here is how the skies over Europe looked as of 11am EDT on April 17 (click for much larger - but to be clear, this is a static shot of conditions as of twenty minutes ago):


    Some aspects of this drastically-reduced airline traffic are, by now, "expected." No planes at all over England, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, even now Italy; usually there would be hundreds or thousands in the air at the same time. Still a good time to go to Istanbul! Of course, any time is a good time for a visit there.

    And what's that plane over Germany? The system lets you click on any little airplane icon to get Air Traffic Control info about that flight. In this case it says:

    More »

  • Where the Flights Aren't Going

    Force of nature vs. modern technology.

    Via FlightRadar24.com, a real-time view of the airliners in the skies over Europe right now. If you have seen one of these in normal circumstances, you know that it's basically all airplanes. Today you can see traffic headed in and out of Istanbul, and Milan, and Rome, and... that's it. No Heathrow, no Charles de Gaulle, no Frankfurt, no Schiphol.

    For comparison, from a Dutch site, a thumbnail view of normal circumstances below. This is becoming quite an amazingly profound effect, at least in the short term.


  • FAQ on the Volcanic Ash Mess

    Why North Atlantic air traffic has come to a halt.

    About the volcanic eruption in Iceland that has brought a halt to air traffic over the North Atlantic and much of Europe, this morning's ten-minute set of links and tips.

    - Is this a known issue in aviation weather, aviation safety, and so on?
      Yes, indeed. Among the list of weather-condition abbreviations that pilots are supposed to know in order to read METARs (don't ask, a readout of local weather conditions) , is "VA," for Volcanic Ash. A description of the oddity of METAR abbreviations  is here, including why "BR" means Mist (Americans are taught to remember, "Baby Rain," but that's not the reason) and "GR" means Hail.
      For the basic USGS background on the problem, see here and here; for a conference on the topic, here.

    - Why does it matter in theory?
      The reasons laid out in newspaper stories worldwide in the past 24 hours are actually true! The volcanic ash particles are extremely fine bits of pumice with tremendous abrasive potential. Even in concentrations too low to be visible as a big threatening "plume," they can in theory cause big problems for: the turbine power plants (aka jet engines) of modern airplanes, operating at tremendous speeds and pressures with very fine tolerances among all the moving parts; the leading edges of the wings, whose precise contours affect the flow of air over the wing and therefore the plane's ability to fly; pitot tubes (for gauging air speed) and other external devices; the plane's paint job; and windows in the cockpit, conceivably making it impossible for the pilots to see.

    - Why does it matter in practice?
      The best known early cases happened over Indonesia in 1982, when several airliners flying through what they later realized was an ash plume were damaged. In one famous case, a British Airways 747 lost power in all four engines and had to glide nearly all the way to a landing (it eventually got some of the engines restarted). The USGS description of a similar incident over Alaska says:

    In 1989, a wide-body passenger jet destined for Anchorage airport flew into the volcanic ash cloud generated by Mount Redoubt, Alaska and lost thrust all 4 engines. The plane entered the ash cloud at 25,000 feet, accelerated, and then rapidly descended to 13,000 feet. The pilot was finally able to restart its engines. The Alaska Range in the area where the plane lost power has peaks from 7,000 to 11,000 feet, so this was an extremely close call. In 1992, the effects of volcanic eruptions on aviation were felt well beyond Alaska when a volcanic ash cloud from the Mount Spurr (Alaska) eruption drifted across the continental U.S. and Canada, shutting down airports in the Midwest and Northeast two days after the eruption. The Spurr cloud affected citizens who are normally not concerned about volcanoes. 

    - Why is this one causing such widespread problems?
     Because the ash is drifting into such busy traffic lanes. Here is the latest chart from the British weather office showing the plume's predicted spread. (Click for larger. I think the red area indicates the spread at altitudes of about 20,000 feet and below; dotted green line, the spread between about 20,000 and 35,000 feet.)

    Thumbnail image for AshMapp.png

    - Is the mammoth flight-cancellation and attendant disruption a big overreaction?
      Really, no one can be sure right now. The charts above say, "Ash concentrations within indicated area are unknown." Odds are that it will look in retrospect like an overreaction, and it will be clear that more planes could have figured out a way to fly more routes sooner. But at the moment, what is the plausible alternative to precautionary overreaction? No government, airline, pilot, or passenger can afford to say, "Hey, I'm feeling lucky" for now. 

    - What does this show about the press?
      Widely available reports have been accurate, informative, and non-alarmist. Who says journalism is headed straight down?

    - What does it show about global warming?

     Topic for another time.


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