Iceland volcano still spewing ash, Europe threatened

23rd May 2011, Comments 0 comments

A plume of ash from an erupting volcano in Iceland is being blown south towards Britain and could reach the airspace over mainland Europe later in the week, meteorological experts said on Monday.

The eruption of Grimsvoetn has evoked fears of a repeat of last year's travel chaos sparked by the eruption of another Icelandic volcano which led to the biggest shutdown of European airspace since World War II.

"The low-level winds are ... blowing strongly towards the UK," said Peitur Arason of the Icelandic Meteorological Office, while a spokeswoman from its British counterpart said ash was likely to reach parts of northern and western Scotland late Monday and early Tuesday.

"How this affects flight routing will be determined by the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) and NATS (National Air Traffic Services) together with individual airlines," she said.

While lower-level winds are close to the ground and thus will probably not manage to carry the ash as far afield, Arason said they would still affect air travel.

Two days into its most powerful eruption in over a century, monitors said that ash particles from the Grimsvoetn volcano had been scattered across much of Iceland, whose airspace has been closed since Sunday.

A spokeswoman for Iceland's airport authority, Isavia, told AFP Monday authorities hoped the main Keflavik airport could be reopened by evening.

Most eyes however were turned to the warnings that winds were changing direction and blowing some of the ash towards Britain and possibly on to mainland Europe.

Gunnar Gudmundsson, a geophysicist colleague of Arason, agreed "it is a bit worrying that there are such strong northern winds," pointing out that on Monday "the ash fall here in Iceland is mainly to the south of the volcano."

"The main question tomorrow is if the production will affect Scotland or northern Ireland," he told AFP, pointing out that there was also a danger the ash could get into a jetstream to the south of Iceland and "could head to the North Sea."

The Finnish Meteorological Institute cautioned that the cloud could reach southern Scandinavia on Tuesday.

Finland's air traffic authority Finavia, however, said that according to the data used by European authorities airspace closures were unlikely Tuesday or Wednesday.

Gudmundsson stressed, "It is not clear how this (ash) production will continue."

"It's very difficult to guess what will happen," he said, adding the explosive, ash-producing phase of the eruption would hopefully end within a few days.

European air traffic controllers in Brussels said Monday they did not expect any further airspace closures due to the ash until the end of Tuesday.

A spokeswoman for EU transport commissioner Siim Kallas, however, suggested that the picture was less certain.

"There is at the moment a possibility of volcanic ash affecting the European airspace starting with the northwestern areas like the UK and Ireland possibly today or tomorrow," she said.

France's junior transport secretary Thierry Mariani also warned that if the ash does reach Europe, "flights will be cancelled."

During last year's eruption of the neighbouring Eyjafjoell volcano, more than 100,000 flights were cancelled and eight million passengers stranded, dealing a harsh blow to the airline industry, particularly in Europe.

The threat of a repeat sent airline shares across the continent tumbling Monday, with German Lufthansa, Air France-KLM, British Airways and Scandinavian airline SAS all seeing falls of around three to four percent in midday trading.

How far the ash travels will depend on the strength of the winds and the intensity of the eruption, experts agree, pointing out that historically Grimsvoetn eruptions have tended to have very brief explosive stages, with the intensity usually subsiding significantly within a few days.

However Gudmundsson pointed out, "this is a much bigger eruption than the recent ones at this volcano," which is Iceland's most active -- having erupted nine times between 1922 and 2004.

In fact, it is the most powerful eruption in more than a century from the volcano -- located at the heart of the country's biggest glacier, Vatnajoekull in southeastern Iceland -- with its plume initially reaching a height of 20 kilometres (12 miles).

On Monday, the plume stood at around 10 kilometres.

"We hope the ash plume will be lower tomorrow ... I think it will decline more and more," Gudmundsson said, while adding that "there are still many open questions."

© 2011 AFP

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