Europe on alert for volcanic ash cloud drift

ICELANDIC FALLOUT::Eurocontrol said the ash could spread southwards, but experts do not expect a repeat of last year’s massive travel disruption

Reuters and AFP, REYKJAVIK and PARIS

Tue, May 24, 2011 - Page 10

An eruption by Iceland’s most active volcano was set to keep the island’s main airport shut yesterday, while other European nations watched for any impact on their air routes from a towering plume of smoke and ash.

Experts said they saw little chance of a repeat of last year’s six-day closure of airspace, which also hit transatlantic flights, when another Icelandic volcano erupted, although airlines have been warned the new ash cloud will drift.

So far Iceland, particularly the towns and villages to the south and east of the Grimsvotn volcano, has suffered most.

Day turned into night when a thick cloud of ash descended on the area, smothering cars and buildings.

The cloud had also begun to drift over the capital Reykjavik by late on Sunday evening and the civil aviation authority said the prospects for re-opening the main international airport yesterday were not good.

Europe’s air traffic control organization warned on its Web site that ash could spread southwards.

“Ash cloud is expected to reach North Scotland on Tuesday 24th May. If volcanic emissions continue with same intensity, cloud might reach west French airspace and north Spain on Thursday 26th May,” Eurocontrol said in a traffic bulletin.

The agency, which set up a crisis unit after bad coordination was blamed for worsening last year’s crisis, said no closures outside Iceland were expected yesterday or today.

Airlines as far away as Australia said they were monitoring the situation after travel and freight disruption rippled across the globe and cost the industry some US$1.7 billion last year.

French Junior Transport Secretary Thierry Mariani warned yesterday that flights would be canceled if the ash cloud blew over Europe, sending airline shares tumbling.

“One thing that is certain ... is that if Europe is affected then flights will be canceled,” Mariani said on Europe 1 radio, adding that it was too early to say for certain if it would.

Shares in Air France-KLM plunged 4 percent at the opening of trading. In Germany, the price of shares in Lufthansa airline fell by 4.56 percent.

“If the ash isn’t noxious then the planes will fly. If the ash is noxious or presents a risk, then the planes won’t fly,” Mariani added.

“The priority should always remain safety, without of course abusing the principle of precaution,” he said.

Iceland’s meteorological office said the plume from Grimsvotn, which last exploded in 2004, had fallen in height from a peak of about 25km in the hours after the eruption and was now holding steady.

The eruption was much stronger than the one at a volcano further south last year that closed European airspace and halted transatlantic flights in April, due to worries that particles could get into aircraft engines and cause accidents.

“It could lead to some disruption, but only for a very limited time and only over a very limited area,” said Magnus Tumi Gudmundsson, a professor of geophysics at University of Iceland.

Gudmundsson and other vulcanologists said that the impact on air travel this time would be more limited as winds were more favorable, the plume’s content was heavier and less likely to spread and authorities had a higher tolerance for ash levels.

Some airlines complained that authorities had been excessively cautious in imposing blanket closures of airspace during last year’s eruption.

Icelandair stopped flights on Sunday. It said 6,000 passengers had been affected by cancellations so far.

TAIWAN

China Airlines (華航) and EVA Airways (長榮航空) said yesterday their flights to Europe have remained unchanged in the wake of the volcanic eruption.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CNA