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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 National Air Traffic Service said Britain had not halted all flights in its space in living memory, although most flights were grounded after Sept. 11. Heathrow was also closed by fog for two days in 1952.

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The ash cloud did not disrupt operations at Iceland's Keflavik airport or caused problems in the capital of Reykjavik, but has affected the southeastern part of the island, said meteorologist Thorsteinn Jonsson. In one area, visibility was reduced to 150 meters (yards) Thursday, he said, and farmers were told to keep livestock indoors to protect them from eating the abrasive ash.

Eurostar train services to France and Belgium and cross-Channel ferries were packed as travelers sought ways out of Britain. P&O ferries said it had booked a passenger on its Dover-Calais route who was trying to get to Beijing — he hoped to fly from Paris instead of London.

The U.S. Geological Survey says about 100 aircraft have run into volcanic ash from 1983 to 2000. In some cases engines shut down briefly after sucking in volcanic debris, but there have been no fatal incidents.

Kjartansson said until the 1980s, airlines were less cautious about flying through volcanic clouds.

"There were some close calls and now they are being more careful," he said.

In 1989, a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines Boeing 747 flew into an ash cloud from Alaska's Redoubt volcano and lost all power, dropping from 25,000 feet to 12,000 feet (7,500 meters to 3,600) before the crew could get the engines restarted. The plane landed safely.

In another incident in the 1980s, a British Airways 747 flew into a dust cloud and the grit sandblasted the windscreen. The pilot had to stand and look out a side window to land safely.

Last month's eruption at the same volcano occurred in an area where there was no glacial ice — lessening the overall risk. Wednesday's eruption, however, occurred beneath a glacial cap. If the eruption continues, and there is a supply of cold water, the lava will chill quickly and fragment into glass.

If the volcano keeps erupting, there's no end to the flight disruptions it could cause.

"When there is lava erupting close to very cold water, the lava chills quickly and turns essentially into small glass particles that get carried into the eruption plume," said Colin Macpherson, a geologist with the University of Durham. "The risk to flights depends on a combination of factors — namely whether the volcano keeps behaving the way it has and the weather patterns."

Iceland, a nation of 320,000 people, sits on a large volcanic hot spot in the Atlantic's mid-oceanic ridge, and has a history of devastating eruptions.

The worst was the 1783 eruption of the Laki volcano, which spewed a toxic cloud over Europe with devastating consequences. At least 9,000 people, a quarter of the population of Iceland, died, many from the famine caused by the eruption, and many more emigrated. The cloud may have killed more than 20,000 people in eastern England and an estimated 16,000 in France.

IN PICTURES: Iceland volcano