Global Education

Icelandic volcano paralyzes air traffic

By Ben Tolkin
Published: May 2010

The volcanic eruption on April 14 has once again proven that despite all of humanity’s advances, we can still be crippled by something most of us can’t pronounce.  The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland (pronounced ay-yah-FYAH-lah-yer-kul, by the way) blanketed Europe in ash and caused a near-total airspace lockdown for almost a week, the worst collapse of civil air travel since World War II.

The crisis canceled a total of about 100,000 flights into and out of Europe, 29 percent of the world’s air travel. In today’s globalized world, a crisis on one continent has impacts everywhere.

These shutdowns cost $250 million to the city of New York alone.  Uncountable millions of travelers were affected, and even now that most airports have reopened, thousands of Europeans remain stranded all over the world. Furthermore, the eruption occurred soon after the death of the president of Poland, causing numerous world leaders to cancel plans to attend his funeral, including president Obama.  It could be worse: also briefly stranded in New York was the prime minister of Norway, who had to govern his nation on his new iPad.

The eruption was also disastrous for the world’s airlines, costing them a total of 1.7 billion dollars in what was already expected to be a difficult year.

Many are asking for bailouts from European governments, similar to the $5 billion the United States gave out following the much smaller three-day lockdown after September 11.

Eyjafjallajökull is not an especially large or powerful volcano. The disaster was caused by a number of unlucky coincidences. The volcano is located under a glacier, so lava from the eruption didn’t just roll down the mountainside; it instantly and explosively turned the ice into steam, which pulverized the lava into tiny particles of ash and shot them 6.8 miles into the atmosphere.  Indeed, damage to Iceland itself was minimal.

Even this much ash would not have caused a disaster if a rainstorm had knocked it out of the atmosphere, but this season was unusually dry in the North Sea.  Worst of all, the unpredictable North Atlantic jet stream suddenly switched directions.

Having blown west into the ocean all winter, after the eruption it began blowing the cloud of ash to the southeast, directly into Europe.

Volcanic ash can be melted down by the heat of jet engines, and fuse into a glassy mass, causing multiple engine failure.  However, most European governments have determined that by this point in time, the ash cloud has dispersed enough to allow regular travel again.

However, we may not be out of trouble yet. Though Eyjafjallajökull is producing less ash, the eruption is showing no signs of stopping.  And, perhaps the greater danger is Eyjafjallajökull’s neighbor, Katla, a volcano ten times stronger, buried under twice as much ice.

Every time in recorded history that Eyjafjallajökull has erupted, Katla has soon followed. If Katla erupts, the current crisis, according to Iceland’s president Olafur Grimsson, will resemble “a small rehearsal.

But don’t worry. Scientists haven’t detected any activity at Katla- yet.

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