Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano spewed an ash cloud halting air traffic across a wide swathe of Europe on Thursday. The ash plume, which rose to between 20,000 feet and 36,000 feet, lies above the Atlantic Ocean close to the flight paths for most routes from the U.S. East Coast to Europe.
The volcano still spewed ash and steam Thursday, but the sudden floods that have wiped out road ways in Iceland have subsided. Some ash was falling on uninhabited areas, but most was being blown by westerly winds toward northern Europe, including Britain, about 1,200 miles away. The cloud grounded planes all flights over Britain, Ireland, France and the Nordic countries. Thousand of flights were canceled, stranding tens of thousands of passengers, and officials said it was not clear when it would be safe enough to fly again.
An aviation expert said it was the first time in living memory that an ash cloud had affected some of the most congested airspace in the world, while a scientist in Iceland said the ejection of volcanic ash — and therefore disruptions in air travel — could continue for days or even weeks. If Iceland’s active volcano gets even more active, Icelanders and air travelers won’t be the only ones impacted. Gases from past large volcanoes have actually lowered Earth’s temperatures, triggered lung ailments, caused acid rain and thinned our protective ozone layer.
“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.”