Over the volcano

April 20, 2010


By Patrick Lannin

The captain was an astute man.

Soon after we had boarded the flight from Stockholm to Reykjavik, one of the few commercial flights operating on Monday in Europe, he voiced the issue we were all thinking about: the ash cloud from Iceland.

“You are probably wondering about the ash cloud from the volcano (he was right there). We will be flying upwind from it so we will be clear of the ash. But you should have a good view of it as we approach Reykjavik,” he said over the inflight announcement system.

Despite such fears, when we took off from Stockholm the skies were completely clear, with great visibility down to the earth as we flew into the sky.

The views were stunning as we flew over the north of Norway, with snow capped mountains down on the ground easily seen.

The volcano in southeast Iceland has caused traffic chaos all over Europe, with a huge ash cloud spreading through the stratosphere. This has caused fears that ash could get in airplane engines and cause a disaster, meaning air traffic authorities have decided to shut huge swathes of airspace.

But passengers on the Reykjavik flight were taking it all in their stride, despite the fact the air space they were to fly through had been closed just 24 hours previously.

“I understand that the agencies that are controllng air space want to be really really safe. I am not too concerned, I don’t think the airlines are going to fly through anything that is particularly thick,” said American David McQuire, 55, who was heading back to the United States via Reykjavik, rather than his original route of going back via Amsterdam.

Another passenger agreed.

“We think there has been an over-reaction (in safety fears).
We just trust they (the airline) have made the right decision,”
said Ingolfur Birgisson, a 21-year-old Icelander who was heading home.

“If we wait a couple of days who says that Katla (a volcano next to the present eruption) won’t erupt and then we will have to wait for a couple of months. I just trust they are taking the right decision,” he said.

Airlines have been chomping at the bit to get flying again as they face losses due to the groundings.

Air traffic authorities have played it very safe, though some were re-opening limited amounts of air space on Tuesday.

As we approached Iceland, the captain made another
announcement: if we looked out of the windows on the left side of the plane we could see the volcano.

And yes, having eased myself out of my seat (I was on the right hand side of the plane) and lent down to peer through the tiny window around the heads of other passengers trying to get a glimpse of one of nature’s most impressive phenomena, there it was — a plume of white smoke wafting into the air in the distance.

To be honest, my first thought was, “Is that it? Did that cause so much trouble?” It looked no scarier than the smoke coming from an ordinary chimney.

Of course, we were 6,000 metres up, where things look a bit different. I am sure a closer view on the ground will be much more impressive.

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Eyjafjallajökull eruption Utdate: 20 March to present

20 March, late evening: An eruption begins on Fimmvörðuháls located between the Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull ice caps. The eruption was initially detected visually; a red cloud above eruptive site was seen around 23 GMT. The onset of the eruption was gentle, following a period of weeks and months prior to the eruption of high seismic activity and high crustal deformation rates in the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic system. Seismic tremor begins around 22:30 and rises gently. Seismicity was not enhanced significantly immediately prior to the eruption compared to the weeks
prior to the eruption. However, the depth of earthquakes decreases and earthquake propagate from magma upwelling area under Eyjafjallajökull towards the eruptive site.

Compiled by Institute of Earth Sciences-Nordic Volcanological Center

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