Researchers discover how easy it it to shut down an entire continent’s air travel

You can get from Point A to Point B anywhere in the world with a couple flights, right?

MIT researchers have recently discovered that it’s not a far stretch of the imagination to have a whole part of the world cut off with only a handful of airports incapacitated — in fact, it’s happened before.

In 2010, a seemingly-unpronounceable volcano called Eyjafjallajökull erupted in Iceland throwing out tons and tons of junk into the air – enough that the airlines deemed to be unsafe to fly. 20 countries simply shut down their airspace, meaning people were stranded across the world.

They say that the world airline network consists of a core of major airports that is hugely robust. By this, they mean that if one airport is closed there are always other routes to your destination.

Airport network

But the world airline network also consists of another network of peripheral airports that are hugely vulnerable. Close the hubs that connect to these airports and entire regions of the planet become inaccessible.

These guys began by analyzing the 18,000 routes that exist between 3237 airports all over the planet. In this network, the airports are nodes and a link exists between them if they have a flight connection. The strength of this link is determined by the number of connections.

It’s not likely that Dr. Evil is going to make a volcano erupt if someone doesn’t wire him $20 billion to an offshore bank account — but it shows that no matter how advanced we think our technology is, all it takes is a volcano, earthquake, flood or other (man-made?) disaster to completely shut off a region of the world. After all, if a $320 million Boeing 777 vanish off the face of the earth, anything’s possible.