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Scientists warn of more eruptions

Scientists warned on Saturday that the Icelandic volcano that grounded airplanes across Europe for three days was showing renewed signs of activity.

world Updated: Apr 17, 2010 23:27 IST
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Scientists warned on Saturday that the Icelandic volcano that grounded airplanes across Europe for three days was showing renewed signs of activity.

Europe’s no-fly zone was expanded to include Ukraine, Belarus, Hungary and Romania and was likely to continue until Sunday.

Even without more eruptions, vulcanologists said the ash could cause problems to air traffic for as much as six months.

But the greater threat: the possibility that the volcano, under the Eyjafyallajokull glacier, could erupt once again.

Scientists were planning an aerial flyover of the volcano on Saturday.

A spokesman for the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority said, “ I would think Europe was probably experiencing its greatest disruption in air travel since 9/11. In terms of closure of air space, this is worse than

after 9/11.”

Lufthansa, the German airline, said that not one of its airplanes anywhere in the world was in the sky. Airlines were losing $ 200 million a day according to the International Air Transport Association.

While economists said Europe would not be seriously affected by a few day’s disruption, scientists were keeping a wary eye on the

volcano.

The Eyjafyallajokull eruption was relatively small and not unusual for Iceland, one of the world’s most geologically active places.

Chris Waythomas, vulcanologist of the US Geological Survey, said, “It was bad luck that the wind took the ash where it did, but this kind of thing happens all the time.”

However, the volcano has a history of long periods of activity. The last time it erupted in 1821 it kept emitting ash and gas for 13 months.

Three Ejyafyallakjokull scenarios.

STATUS QUO.

The hope is that the Eyjafyallajokull eruption is a one-off event. The airlines will receive more financial wounds to lick and Europe will see some spectacular sunsets.

There will be no noticeable impact on the weather. John Wolff of the GeoAnalytical Lab, Washington State University, said, “It’s not a very large eruption, it’s impact on climate should be negligible.”

Thorvaldur Thordarson, expert at the University of Edinburgh, agrees, saying the particles would have to be a thousand times for there to be any weather impact.

MORE OF THE SAME

Vulcanologists say there are signs that the Eyjafyallajokull will eject more spumes into the atmosphere. It has a previous record of long periods of activity.

Because it sits under a 150 metres of glacial ice, the volcano tends to develop a cap of cool magma, produce lots of steam and then, like a pressure cooker, blow ash back into the air.

Europe need not be affected so long as new eruptions do not coincide with the sort of wind patterns that existed on Wednesday.

More interesting would be the possibility that Eyjafyallajokulll’s eruptions will increase in intensity and the volcano shift from ash to emitting sulfur dioxide.

Ash effects airplanes. Sulfur dioxide affects weather.

If the volcano ejects 10 million or more tons of sulfur dioxide the result would be cool summers and bitter winters. This will be confined to Europe, says Wolff, “Eruptions occurring at high latitudes tend to remain regional, while equatorial eruptions have a global impact.” Iceland’s 1783 Laki eruption had a cooling effect on Europe.

CATACALYSM.

Icelandic volcanoes are mild-mannered compared to those along the Pacific “ring of fire.”

Nonetheless, there is a one in a million chance of Wednesday’s eruption being the precursor to one of the mega-eruptions that in the past have changed climate, destroyed civilizations and killed thousands.

Thordarson says that descending ash can wreck machinery, like hydroelectric dams, and it can make crops in the field and grass being eaten by livestock toxic.

This would require the Eyjafyallajokull to explode on a scale it has never done before or set off one of the larger Icelandic volcanoes like Hekla or Katla. Unlikely, but Thordarson notes that “there are so many volcanoes in Iceland. One can go off any time.”

For a genuine global impact, the eruption would have to be on the scale of the 1991 Mount Pinatubo blow-up in the Philippines.

That volcano ejected a massive 10 cubic kilometers of material into the atmosphere, bringing down global temperatures by half a degree centigrade.

In comparison, the Icelandic troublemaker is only spewing out about 3000 tonnes of material a day.