Ash may hover for days over uncertain Europe
The Icelandic volcano that has kept much of Europe land-bound is far from finished spitting out its grit, and offered up new mini-eruptions that raise concerns about longer-term damage to world air travel and trade.world Updated: Apr 18, 2010 09:41 IST
The Icelandic volcano that has kept much of Europe land-bound is far from finished spitting out its grit, and offered up new mini-eruptions that raise concerns about longer-term damage to world air travel and trade.
Facing days to come under the volcano's unpredictable, ashy plume, Europeans are looking at temporary airport layoffs and getting creative with flight patterns to try to weather this extraordinary event.
Modern Europe has never seen such a travel disruption. Air space across a swath from Britain to Ukraine was closed and set to stay that way until Sunday or Monday in some countries, affecting airports from New Zealand to San Francisco. Millions of passengers have had plans foiled or delayed.
Activity in the volcano at the heart of this increased early Saturday, and showed no sign of abating.
"There doesn't seem to be an end in sight," Icelandic geologist Magnus Tumi Gudmundsson told The Associated Press on Saturday. "The activity has been quite vigorous overnight, causing the eruption column to grow."
Scientists say that because the volcano is situated below a glacial ice cap, the magma is being cooled quickly, causing explosions and plumes of grit that can be catastrophic to plane engines, depending on prevailing winds.
In Iceland, winds dragged the ashes over new farmland, to the southwest of the glacier, causing farmers to scramble to secure their cattle and board up windows.
With the sky blackened out and the wind driving a fine, sticky dust, dairy farmer Berglind Hilmarsdottir teamed up with neighbors to round her animals and get them to shelter. The ash is toxic - the fluoride causes long-term bone damage that makes teeth fall out and bones break.
"This is bad. There are no words for it," said Hilmarsdottir, whose pastures near the town of Skogar were already covered in a gray paste of ash.
Forecasters say light prevailing winds in Europe - and large amounts of unmelted glacial ice above the volcano - mean that the situation is unlikely to change quickly.
"Currently the UK and much of Europe is under the influence of high pressure, which means winds are relatively light and the dispersal of the cloud is slow," said Graeme Leitch, a meteorologist at Britain's National Weather Service. "We don't expect a great deal of change over the next few days." A Dutch geologist who is in Iceland observing the volcano, Edwin Zanen, described it to Dutch state broadcaster NOS: "We're at 25 kilometers (16 miles) distance from the crater now. We're looking at a sun-soaked ice shelf, and above it is looming a cloud of ashes of oh, 4 to 5 kilometers (2.5 to 3 miles) high. There are lightening flashes in it. It's a real inferno we're looking at. "There's absolutely no sign that the thing is calming down. On the contrary, we can see that at this moment it's extraordinarily active," he said.
With the prospect of days under the cloud of ash, pilots and aviation officials sought to dodge the dangerous grit by adjusting altitude levels.
Germany's airspace ban allows for low-level flights to go ahead under so-called visual flight rules, in which pilots don't rely on their instruments.
Lufthansa took advantage of that to fly 10 empty planes to Frankfurt from Munich on Saturday in order to have them in the right place when the restrictions are lifted, airline spokesman Wolfgang Weber said.
First Published: Apr 18, 2010 09:32 IST