I visited Iceland to witness the volcanic eruption in April, 2010
On April 14, 2010, the volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted on Iceland, spreading large amounts of volcanic ash all over Europe, grounding all airplanes in Northern Europe for days and disrupting air traffic for weeks. People either on the way on holiday or returning home found themselves stranded in airports, unfamiliar cities or found other, more time-consuming modes of transportation.
There were stories of people being stranded at airports for weeks, never getting home. Or travelling across Europe by car or train. Norwegian charter tourists travelled by bus for two-and-a-half days from Athens to Oslo nonstop. At the same time I travelled on holiday to both New York and Iceland by plane. The story from New York will have to be told another time.
I flew to Iceland a few days into the eruption, I had already returned from New York. Plane traffic in Europe was still closed, but due to the wind blowing the ashes south, Norway, being east of Iceland, had opened some of their airports. Keflavik airport outside Reykjavik had been open the whole time as it lay west of the volcano. I flew from Trondheim via Oslo to Reykjavik without any problems. On the flight to Iceland we were only 9 passengers on the plane, needless to say, the service was great.
As we were approaching Reykjavik all the cabin personell came down the aisle, found an empty row on the left side of the cabin and peered out the windows. The captain informed us over the speakers that we had a great view of the volcanic eruption on the left side of the plane. As I was sitting on the right side I quickly jumped across the aisle. The eruption was in clear view, easy to see. We were not many kilometers north of it.
One day we drove down to the volcano to watch the eruption for ourselves, maybe see some of the ash that had been stopping plane traffic. A few hours drive from Reykjavik, it wasn’t too far.
As we got nearer to the volcano we could see the huge cloud of ash in the distance, a small film of ash settled on the car windows. The windshield vipers were in constant use.
The eruption had produced large amounts of melt water as the volcano lay under a glacier. The resulting flood had threathened to destroy the main road that lay between the volcano and the ocean. Only the actions of a smart farmer saved the road. He had, as soon he heard of the eruption, taken his excavator out and dug a huge hole in the road for the water to pass. It worked, only days later the road was repaired. Only a small section had been ruined instead of larger parts.
As we were just south of the volcano we stopped the car, got out. The wind was blowing south, blowing the ash straight towards us. Most of the volcanic ash had been blown higher up, passing over us on its way towards Europe. Closer to the ground there was less ash in the air, but still enough to be felt. I was chewing ash for the rest of the day, I was only out of the car for half a minute. Enough time to collect some samples of ash, see the eruption. We got back in the car, the ash in the air was uncomfortable.
We kept driving south of the volcano to see if we could get a better view. The clouds of ash got worse and worse, we would not be able to step outside here. We kept driving.
The volcanic eruption and the ash cloud it spewed out caused, over an eight day period, about 107.000 flights to be cancelled. 10 million passengers were affected, the total cost to the airline industry came to a total of €1.3 billion.
As the eruption happened under a glacier, the massive layers of ice quickly cooled the erupting lava, turning it into tiny fragments of glass and ice. The eruption threw this ash high into the air, the winds then spread it out over Europe.
This ash, when sucked into a plane’s jet engines, then melts, clogging up the engines, causing them to shut down. This was first discovered in 1982, when a British Airways flight flew to close to a volcanic eruption in Java, Indonesia. As the plane passed through the ash all four engines shut down. Luckiky, the crew was able to restart three of the four engines and safely land the plane.
Icelandic authorities had for years been warning airlines and aircraft manufacturers of this, asking for a safe level to be determined. This had not been done yet in 2010, the limit therefore had to be set at zero. Any volcanic ash at all, and the airspace was concidered unsafe. As the eruption continued, higher limits were set, ending at 4mg/m^3 of airspace.
Airspace in Northern Europe was more or less closed from April 15 to April 23, with shorter and more regional closures continuing for a month. The last closed airspace was the UK and Ireland from May 16 to May 17. From then on European airspace was again fully open.
No accidents happened due to the eruption, although the restrictions came under critisism for being too strict. Hopefully this incident has led to more research on volcanic ash and jet engines, leading to safe standards on how much ash a plane can fly through.
We continued driving past the eruption, soon we left the ash behind. We arrived at Skógafoss, one of Iceland’s biggest waterfalls. A beautiful waterfall, a 60 meter drop, the spray of water droplets in the air creating a rainbow. So much more picturesque that the ash cloud we had left behind.
A trail went up on one side, we walked up a bit to get a different view. So beautiful. And only some kilometers away the volcano was still spewing out lava and ash.
I was very lucky during the volcanic eruption, managing to travel both to New York and Iceland. When I was to return from Iceland to Norway the winds turned, and suddenly Keflavik Airport was closed. I ended up having four more days in Reykjavik, they were great.
Were you affected by the eruption? Maybe stuck in an airport or unable to take a trip? Please share your story.