An ash cloud from Iceland’s spewing volcano halted air travel across a wide swath of Europe on Thursday, grounding planes on a scale unseen since the 2001 terror attacks as authorities stopped all flights over Britain, Iceland and the Nordic countries.
Thousands of flights were canceled, stranding tens of thousands of passengers, and officials said it was not clear when it would be safe enough to fly again.
An aviation expert said it was the first time in living memory that an ash cloud had affected some of the most congested airspace in the world, while a scientist in Iceland said the ejection of volcanic ash – and therefore the disruption in air travel – could continue for days or even weeks.
“At the present time it is impossible to say when we will resume flying,” said Henrik Peter Joergensen, the spokesman for Copenhagen’s airport in Denmark, where some 25,000 passengers were affected.
The ash plume, which rose to between 20,000 feet and 36,000 feet (6,000 metres and 11,000 metres), lies above the Atlantic Ocean close to the flight paths for most routes from the U.S. east coast to Europe.
With the cloud drifting south and east across Britain, the country’s air traffic service banned all non-emergency flights until at least 7 a.m. Friday. Irish authorities closed the air space for at least eight hours, and aviation authorities in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Belgium took similar precautions.
The move shut down London’s five major airports including Heathrow, a major trans-Atlantic hub that handles over 1,200 flights and 180,000 passengers per day. Airport shutdowns and flight cancellations spread eastward across Europe – to France, Belgium, the Netherlands Denmark, Ireland, Sweden, Finland and Switzerland – and the effects reverberated worldwide.
French officials shut down all flights to Paris and 23 other airports.
Airlines in the United States canceling some flights to Europe and delayed others. In Washington, the Federal Aviation Administration said it was working with airlines to try to reroute some flights around the massive ash cloud.
Norway also closed its ocean territory and canceled helicopter flights to offshore oil installations, according to Avinor, the Norwegian agency responsible for the country’s airport network.
Germany, which is farther east, has not closed airports, but runways are backed up with planes that could not take off for their destinations, a German air security representative said.
Flights from Asia, Africa and the Middle East to Heathrow and other top European hubs were also put on hold.
The highly abrasive, microscopic particles that make up volcanic ash pose a threat to aircraft because they can affect visibility and get sucked into airplane engines, causing them to shut down. The ash can also block pilot tubes, which supply vital instruments such as air speed indicators, or latch onto engine blades, forming a glassy substance that may cause engines to surge or stall.
Ash will also damage all forward-facing surfaces on an aircraft, such as the cockpit windshields, the wings’ leading edges, the landing lights and air filters for the passenger cabin.
It was not the first time air traffic has been halted by a volcano, but such widespread disruption has not been seen since the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
“There hasn’t been a bigger one,” said William Voss, president of the U.S.-based Flight Safety Foundation, who praised aviation authorities and Eurocontrol, the European air traffic control organization, for closing down airspaces. “This has prevented airliners wandering about, with their engines flaming out along the way.” (The Associated Press)
A spokesman for Nats, which was formerly known as the National Air Traffic Services, said: “The Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre has issued a forecast that the ash cloud from the volcanic eruption in Iceland will track over Europe tonight. Nats is working with Eurocontrol and our colleagues in Europe’s other air navigations service providers to take the appropriate action to ensure safety in accordance with international aviation policy.” (BBC)
Gideon Ewers, spokesman for the International Federation of Pilots Associations said it was a unique event. “Normally, these volcanic eruptions affect air travel in areas of thin traffic such as the Aleutian islands in Alaska, or in Indonesia and the Philippines,” he told The Associated Press.
Dr. Mike Branney, senior lecturer in volcanology, University of Leicester, said: “Volcanic ash is not good to plane engines. Firstly, it is highly abrasive and can scour and damage moving parts. Secondly, if it enters a jet engine the intense heat of the engine could fuse it to the interior of the engine with a caking of hot glass, which ultimately can cause the engine to cut out completely. This is a sensible precaution.” (BBC)
In Iceland, hundreds of people have fled rising floodwaters since the volcano under the Eyjafjallajokull (ay-yah-FYAH’-plah-yer-kuh-duhl) glacier erupted Wednesday for the second time in less than a month.
As water gushed down the mountainside, rivers rose up to 10 feet (3 metres) by Wednesday night, slicing the island nation’s main road in half. The eruption was at least 10 times as powerful as the one last month, scientists said.
The volcano still spewed ash and steam Thursday, but the flooding had subsided, leaving new channels carved through the Icelandic landscape. Some ash was falling on uninhabited areas, but most was being blown by westerly winds towards northern Europe, including Britain, about 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometres) away.
“It is likely that the production of ash will continue at a comparable level for some days or weeks. But where it disrupts travel, that depends on the weather,” said Einar Kjartansson, a geophysicist at the Icelandic Meteorological Office. “It depends how the wind carries the ash.” (The Associated Press)
At Heathrow, passengers milled around, looking at closed check-in desks and gazing up at departure boards listing rows of cancellations.
“It’s so ridiculous it is almost amusing,” said Cambridge University researcher Rachel Baker, 23, who had planned to meet her American boyfriend in Boston but got no further than Heathrow. (The Associated Press)
“I just wish I was on a beach in Mexico,” said Ann Cochrane, 58, of Toronto, a passenger stranded in Glasgow. (The Associated Press)
Mel Wilkinson, 28, a receptionist from Newcastle, was one of the thousands of passengers on London’s subway system who heard an announcement that all flights had been canceled. Wilkinson had planned to fly from Heathrow to Hong Kong on Thursday to visit family. She said the ash cloud was “very bizarre,” adding: “You couldn’t make this up.” (Washington Post)
The ash cloud did not disrupt operations at Iceland’s Keflavik airport or caused problems in the capital of Reykjavik, but has affected the southeastern part of the island, said meteorologist Thorsteinn Jonsson. In one area, visibility was reduced to 150 metres (yards) Thursday, he said, and farmers were told to keep livestock indoors to protect them from eating the abrasive ash.
“When there is laval erupting close to very cold water, the laval chills quickly and turns essentially into small glass particles that get carried into the eruption plume,” said Colin Macpherson, a geologist with the University of Durham. “The risk to flights depends on a combination of factors – namely whether the volcano keeps behaving the way it has and the weather patterns.” (CBC)
Professor Bill McGuire, professor at the Aon Benfield UCL Hazard Research Centre, said it was not “particularly unusual” for ash from Icelandic eruptions to reach the UK. “Such a large eruption… would have the potential to severely affect air travel at high northern latitudes for six months or more. In relation to the current eruption, it is worth noting that the last eruption of Eyjafjallajoekull lasted more than 12 months.” (BBC)
Eurostar train services to France and Belgium and cross-Channel ferries were packed as travelers sought ways out of Britain. P&O ferries said it had booked a passenger on its Dover-Calais route who was trying to get to Beijing – he hoped to fly from Paris instead of London.
It is hard to predict how long it will be before air travel can resume, said Matthew Watson, a geophysicist, at England’s Bristol University. “You really need two things to happen: You need the volcano to stop emplacing ash to the altitude that commercial aircraft fly at, 30,000 to 35,000 feet, and you then need the upper-level winds to blow the ash and disperse it out of the air space,” he said. (CNN)
How long that will take “depends very much on the volcano. If this is it and it’s stopped right now and it doesn’t do anything else… I imagine you are looking at 24 to 48 hours to clear UK air space,” he said. (CNN)
But the volcano was continuing to erupt and spew ash as of 5:30 p.m. local time (1:30 p.m. ET) Thursday, Icelandic Foreign Ministry representative Urdur Gunnarsdottir said. France closed eight airports in the north of the country as of 5 p.m. (11 a.m. ET) and is set to close another 16, including Charles de Gaulle, at 11 p.m. local time (5 p.m. ET).
American Airlines said that it was able to operate 15 flights into and out of London on Thursday morning before the airspace was closed around midday. “The flights encountered no ash,” said Tim Smith, an airline spokesman. (New York Times) The remaining 19 London flights on its schedule were canceled, as were two more bound for Manchester.
Continental canceled 32 flights, primarily those originating from its hubs in Newark and Houston, according to Mary Clark, a spokeswoman for the airline. Anthony Black, a spokesman for Delta, said that it was waiting for additional information from Europe “to determine any additional adjustments.” (New York Times) Delta, through its Northwest subsidiary, has a European hub in the Netherlands, whose airspace closed at 6 p.m. Thursday (noon Eastern Time).
John Strickland, director of air transport consultancy JLS Consulting, saw possible border hazards. “Iceland sits right on one of the key routes between Europe and the USA and… depending on meteorological conditions it could also affect flights from Europe to Asia so there are two big international flows which could be affected by this.” (Reuters)
The U.S. Geological Survey says that about 100 aircraft have run into volcanic ash from 1983 to 2000. In some cases engines shut down briefly after sucking in volcanic debris, but there have been no fatal incidents.
Kjartansson said until the 1980s, airlines were less cautious about flying through volcanic clouds. “There were some close calls and now they are being more careful,” he said. (The Associated Press)
In 1989, a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines Boeing 747 flew into an ash cloud from Alaska’s Redoubt volcano and lost all power, dropping from 25,000 feet to 12,000 feet before the crew could get the engines restarted. The plane landed safely.
In another incident in the 1980s, a British Airways 747 flew into a dust cloud and the grit sandblasted the windscreen. The pilot had to stand and look out a side window to land safely.
Iceland, a nation of 320,000 people, sits on a large volcanic hot spot in the Atlantic’s mid-oceanic ridge, and has a history of devastating eruptions. The worst was the 1783 eruption of the Laki volcano, which spewed a toxic cloud over Europe with devastating consequences. At least 9,000 people, a quarter of the population of Iceland, died, many from the famine caused by the eruption, and many more emigrated. The cloud may have killed more than 20,000 people in eastern England and an estimated 16,000 in France.