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Ash cloud from Iceland volcano shuts down air traffic

Ash cloud from Iceland's spewing volcano halted air traffic across a wide swath of Europe on Thursday.

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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 pitot 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.

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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 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."

Gideon Ewers, spokesman for the International Federation of Airline 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.

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 meters) by Wednesday night, slicing the island nation's main road in half.

IN PICTURES: Iceland volcano

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 toward northern Europe, including Britain, about 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) 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."

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 farther than Heathrow.

"I just wish I was on a beach in Mexico," said Ann Cochrane, 58, of Toronto, a passenger stranded in Glasgow.