Tag Archives: airspace

Airspace Across Spatial Scales

by Caitlin Douglas

The recently imposed no-fly zone in Libya has brought to our attention the topic of sovereign airspace. A country’s airspace is interesting in that although it is less tangible and invisible in comparison to other military installations (such as Navy dockyards) it has an important role in both military training and geopolitical power projection. This topic is discussed by Alison Williams in her timely article in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers.

Britain first declared sovereignty over its airspace in 1911, and The Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation in 1944 granted all signatory states sovereignty over the airspace above their land and maritime territories (and remains the most influential treaty today).

Williams uses UK airspace as a case study to illustrate how airspace can be perceived as a multiple and complex geopolitical zone.  Williams’ argues that airspace should be referred to as airspaces as the region is actually composed of vertical and horizontal overlapping and intersecting sub-sections and should therefore be appropriately referred to in the plural form. What makes Williams’ article so interesting is that it illustrates how the entity of ‘airspace’ is dependent on the scale at which it is examined. At an international scale airspace is a single homogeneous entity of a specific country whereas within a country, as Williams argues, it is much more heterogeneous. In this way a country’s airspace is far more complex than previously regarded.

Williams, A. 2010. Reconceptualising spaces of the air: performing the multiple spatialities of UK military airspaces. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 36 (2): 253-267.

Eyjafjallajökull: Geography’s Harsh Reminder

Eyjafjallajökull’s 2010 eruption. Wikimedia Commons.

by Benjamin Sacks

THE ERUPTION of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull on 20 March 2010 caught Europe dangerously off-guard. For two months, waves of ash closed some of the world’s busiest airspace. An estimated ten million passengers were left stranded, international train services collapsed under the heightened strain of people seeking alternate transportation, and governments were left to deal with angered airlines seeking to regain some portion of lost revenue. In total, over one hundred thousand flights were cancelled. The legal and political fallout of Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption continues today. A fundamental questions lies at the heart of this debate: why wasn’t Europe better warned or prepared? Amy R Donovan and Clive Oppenheimer (University of Cambridge) highlighted this problem in their March 2011 Geographical Journal commentary. The danger such natural events as Eyjafjallajökull pose, as Donovan and Oppenheimer argue, is that they lie outside the traditional realm of managerial governance.

Many natural events, however dangerous, lend governments two favours: first, relatively ample warning; second, comparatively localised impact. Hurricanes are an excellent case-in-point. Every summer NOAA, the United States’s oceanographic and atmospheric monitoring agency, continuously tracks existing storms and recalculates their future projectories. Excepting such hurricanes as Andrew and Katrina–most hurricanes cause damage across a limited geographic expanse before weakening significantly in strength. The snowstorms that rack the American northeast are similarly tracked in advance so that appropriate precautions can be taken (even if, in the event, those precautions prove inadequate).

The Eyjafjallajökull eruption, much like the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and the 2010 Haiti earthquake, presents a very different scenario. Such events are difficult to forecast, even more difficult to contain, and–like other natural events–impossible to prevent. But, as The Geographical Journal commentary noted, preventative steps could have been taken. Although the Met Office’s Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre (VAAC), clearly noted the airspace risks posed by Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull volcanoes, this information was not included in the annual National Risk Register, nor did it predicate the implementation of ‘sophisticated, integrated UK or EU policy in advance of the recent volcanic activity’ (p. 2). One hopes that the Eyjafjallajökull airspace fiasco will serve as a reminder of our inability to tame the extremes of physical geography.

Jersey Tourists Lost to Volcanic Ash Disruption“, BBC News 11 May 2010. Accessed 18 January 2011.

Amy R Donovan and Clive Oppenheimer, “The 2010 Eyjafjallajökull Eruption and the Reconstruction of Geography“, The Geographical Journal 177:1 (Mar., 2011): pp. 4-11.


UAVs and the geographies of aerial spaces

By Matthew Rech

This week, the Guardian reported that the UK police force are planning to deploy unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) for the routine monitoring of motorists, protestors, agricultural thieves and fly-tippers (Lewis). Documentation obtained through the freedom of information act suggests that a partnership between BAE Systems and a consortium of government agencies led by Kent Police hope to inaugurate their ‘national drone plan’ with surveillance operations during the London 2012 Olympics.

Routinely in the news, and infamous for their use in reconnaissance and air strikes in Afghanistan and Iraq, the military-style drones will be adapted for use in the UK, with current models being limited by air-space law. The financial cost of ‘revolutionising policing’ in this way, Lewis reports, will be offset by spreading the initial outlay across several government agencies, and by the aircraft ‘undertaking commercial work during spare time’.

Although it is possible for us to frame this story in a number of ways (surveillance, civil liberties and policing, post-human and military technologies), relatively new work in the geographies and geopolitics of aerial spaces might provide a cogent framework with which to assess the implications of airborne covert surveillance.

Writing in Area, Alison Williams ties together an ever-growing literature in aerial geographies/geopolitics, and emphasises the importance of thinking in 3D: of considering the vertical and volumetric aspects of the geographies of states. Although Williams’ article is concerned with the territorial integrity and contingent sovereignty issues in relation to military violations of airspace, an emphasis on the complexities associated with “strategies of security and securitisation increasingly enacted by powerful states” (57) through utilisation of sovereign airspace, remains pertinent to the discussion.

Here, and “as UAVs become the dominant modes of aerial attack” (57) (or in this case, surveillance), the lessons learned from considering the technological, political and moral implications of incursions into sovereign space might usefully be used to consider the future geographies of civilian domestic surveillance.

Read Paul Lewis’ article at Guardian online

Read Williams, A (2009) A crisis in aerial sovereignty? Considering the implications of recent military violations of national airspace. Area 42, 1. 51-59

Read more about the geographies and geopolitics of airspace at the Newcastle University Military Geography website