Thursday, April 15, 2010

Icelandic Volcanic Eruption Causes Transatlantic and European Flight Disruptions

An eruption of a volcano in Iceland is causing major headaches for airlines and passengers attempting to fly across the Atlantic Ocean or in parts of Europe because the ash poses a safety hazard to aircraft. Plane engines could shut down if sufficient quantities of the fine particulates get ingested by the engines and can otherwise affect performance of these aircraft. The photo at right shows the ash cloud hanging over the Eyjafjallajokull glacier in Iceland (via Daylife). The ash can be razor sharp, and can melt in the heat of engine compressors only to resolidify causing major damage or shutdown of the engine.
Authorities said it was not even clear when it would be safe enough to fly again. In one sobering prediction, a scientist in Iceland said the ejection of volcanic ash — and therefore the disruptions in air travel — could continue for days or even weeks.

Britain's Civil Aviation Authority said non-emergency flights would be banned in all airports until at least 6 p.m. Irish authorities also closed their air space for at least eight hours, as did aviation authorities in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland.

The move shut down London's five major airports including Heathrow, a major trans-Atlantic hub that handles upwards of 1,200 flights and 180,000 passengers per day. Shutdowns and cancellations spread to France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Ireland, Sweden, Finland and Switzerland.

In Iceland, hundreds of people have fled rising floodwaters since the volcano under the Eyjafjallajokull 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 meters) by Wednesday night, slicing the island nation's main road in half.

The volcano still spewed ash and steam today, but the floods had subsided. Some ash was falling on uninhabited areas, but most was being blown by westerly winds toward northern Europe, including Britain, about 1,200 milesaway.

The volcano's smoke and ash poses a threat to aircraft because it can affect visibility, and microscopic debris can get sucked into airplane engines and can cause them to shut down.
At the moment all air traffic into Heathrow Airport in London is shut down for the rest of the day, but there's no indication that the situation may change. It all depends on the continuing eruption and the wind direction of the ash cloud.

NASA satellite data was tracking the volcano's emissions from March, and found that:
[l]ess than 24 hours after the satellite's first observation, the JPL team confirmed the volcano was emitting more than one billion watts of energy -- enough to power 40,000 passenger cars at the same time -- and discharging more than six tons of lava per second.
That sounds like a pretty impressive amount of power, but I'm still looking to see what kind of chemical emissions are being pumped out and in what quantities. Large volcanic eruptions can have climatic effects regionally and globally, so if this eruption continues it could have repercussions beyond that which has already been seen in air travel disruptions. This page provides some historical context and more technical data, but not a measure of emissions.

As I mentioned previously, this MSNBC report indicates that the Icelandic volcanic eruption has the potential to affect regional and global climate. It hasn't quite reached levels affecting climate globally, but local effects may include acidification of watersheds due to fallout from the eruption.

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