Sunday, May 22, 2011

One year after Eyjafjoell, Iceland volcano Grimvotn shuts down flights

This is an overhead view of the Antarcitc circle (the curvy line denotes that circle. Note that Iceland is below Greenland, with Canada to the Northwest. One year after Eyjafjoell, Iceland volcano Grimvotn shuts down flights
A NEW volcanic eruption in Iceland has shut down the country's airspace, a year after the eruption of nearby Eyjafjoell caused aviation chaos across Europe.

However experts and aviation authorities said the impact of the Grimsvotn eruption should not be as far-reaching.

Grimsvotn, Iceland's most active volcano located at the heart of its biggest glacier Vatnajoekull, began erupting late on Saturday (early Sunday AEST), sending a plume of smoke and ash as high as 20km into the sky.

Ash soon covered nearby villages and farms and had by Sunday morning reached the capital, nearly 400 kilometres to the west.

"It's just black outside, and you can hardly tell it is supposed to be bright daylight," said Bjorgvin Hardarsson, a farmer at Hunbakkar Farm in the nearby village of Kirkjubaejarklaustur.

On Sunday morning, Iceland's airport administration, Isavia, announced that the country's main airport Keflavik was shutting and that basically all of the country's airspace was closing due to the ash cloud.

The airspace closure "affects pretty much all of Iceland right now, at least for the next hours... flights to and from Iceland are shutting down," said Isavia spokeswoman Hjordis Gudmundsdottir, adding that flight routes to the north of the North Atlantic island nation could also be affected.

However, she stressed, the fact that winds were blowing the ash to the north was far better than last year's eruption of Eyjafjoell, when a massive cloud of ash was blown to the south and southeast over mainland Europe.

The Eyjafjoell eruption caused the planet's biggest airspace shutdown since World War II, lasting almost a month, amid fears the volcanic ash could wreak havoc on aircraft engines.

By late morning on Sunday, no other European countries had decided to close their airspace, although aviation authorities in Britain and Scandinavia, among the hardest hit last year, said they were keeping a close eye on developments.

The European air safety organisation EuroControl said no impact was expected on European airspace outside Iceland or on transatlantic flights for at least 24 hours.

In The Netherlands, an aviation authority spokeswoman said there were as yet no plans to cancel a flight planned from the Amsterdam-Schiphol airport to Keflavik at 2200 AEST.

With ash falling on villages in the surrounding area and as far away as Reykjavik on Sunday, geophysicists at Iceland's Meteorological Office said they expected the Grimsvotn eruption to have far less impact on international flights than last year's blast.

"I don't expect this will have the same effect as Eyjafjoell volcano because the ash is not as fine," said Gunnar Gudmundsson.

"I don't think this will have much of an effect on international flights, or that it will shut down airports abroad."

Einar Kjartansson, another geophysicist at the Icelandic Meteorological Office, however insisted "it's much too early to say".

"If the eruption lasts for a long time we could be seeing similar effects as seen with Eyjafjoell last year," he cautioned, but added that for the time being "most of the traffic at least to the south of Iceland will probably not be affected".

"We don't know what will happen after that. We are expecting weather changes on Tuesday, when the winds should change to a northwesterly direction and the ash should clear from us here (in Reykjavik)," he said.

Experts have been quick to note though that no two volcanic eruptions are alike, and Gudmundsson said it was unlikely that Grimsvotn would emit a similar kind of ash — fine, with very sharp particles — as found in the massive plume that burst from Eyjafjoell.

"The eruption is still going strong, but because the ash is basalt it is rougher and falls back down to earth much quicker," he said.

Grimsvotn, which has erupted nine times between 1922 and 2004, is located in an enormous caldera — a collapsed volcanic crater — eight kilometres in diameter near the centre of the Vatnajoekull icefield.

When it last erupted in November 2004, volcanic ash fell as far away as mainland Europe and caused minor disruptions in flights to and from Iceland.

Geologists had worried late last year the volcano was about to blow when they noticed a large river run caused by rapidly melting glacier ice.

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