New volcanic eruption threatens to shut down air travel in the United States and Europe

This map is a composite of volcanic ash clouds from the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in April 2010; this composite, based on data from the London Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre, was compiled by the UK Met Office. North America appears on the left, Europe in the middle and Asia on the right; the red dot indicates the site of the eruption. Image: UK Met Office

A new volcanic eruption in Iceland threatens to do what a 2010 eruption did: halt air travel between the United States and Europe. A volcanic eruption began earlier today at the Geldingadalir volcano of Fagradalsfjall in Iceland’s largely uninhabited Reykjanes Peninsula. The eruption is near the famous Blue Lagoon geothermal spa in the country’s capital, Reykjavik. the eruption is also not far from the airport of this city, Keflavik Airport. Today’s eruption is in the same area where a six-month eruption began in February 2021, near Grindavík.

The first image of the new volcanic eruption, taken by a Coastguard helicopter, shows lava flowing from a 200m fissure.  Image: Icelandic Meteorological Office
The first image of the new volcanic eruption, taken by a Coast Guard helicopter, shows lava flowing from a 200m fissure from the scene of the 2021 eruption. Today’s eruption started nearby. Image: Icelandic Meteorological Office

Although the 2021 eruption caused flight delays and cancellations to and from Keflavik Airport, it did not impact wider transatlantic flight operations. However, the 2020 eruption at Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano did. Much of the controlled airspace of much of Europe was closed to instrument flight rules traffic, resulting in the biggest air traffic disruption since World War II at the time. world. The shutdown has stranded millions of passengers in Europe and elsewhere around the world with tens of thousands of flights cancelled, including the important transatlantic sector.

The disturbance began in April 2010 when the volcano erupted, sending ash into the atmosphere and into the jetstream, where the ash spread over Europe in one of the world’s busiest airspaces. Much of European airspace was closed from April 15 to 23; Persistent ash clouds also forced the suspension of air travel over Scotland and Ireland on May 4-5, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Austria and Germany on May 9, and the closure of Irish and British airspace on May 16 and 17. A total of 107,000 flights were canceled during the initial 8-day period, representing 48% of total air traffic which ultimately affected over 10 million passengers.

Volcanic ash can cause significant damage to jet engines passing through it or to boats and car engines that ingest ash-filled air. Volcanic ash is hard and abrasive and can quickly cause severe wear and tear on various aircraft parts such as propellers, turbocharger blades, and even cockpit windows. Because volcanic ash particles have a low melting point, they can melt in the combustion chamber of a jet engine, creating a ceramic or glass glaze that then sticks to turbine blades, fuel injectors, and to the combustion chambers. A jet engine that ingests only a small amount of ash could suffer from total engine failure.

First view of the new volcanic eruption scene in Iceland.  Image: Icelandic Meteorological Office
First view of the new volcanic eruption scene in Iceland. Image: Icelandic Meteorological Office

Overheating and engine failure are also possible in cars and trucks because volcanic ash can seep into almost any opening in a vehicle. Ash is also very abrasive; ash stuck between windshields and wiper blades will permanently scratch and mark the windshield glass, and windows are susceptible to scratching each time they are raised, lowered, and cleaned.

After the 2010 incident, scientists explored previous eruptions and what their impact on modern aviation might be. According to Professor Bill McGuire of the Aon Benfield UCL Hazard Research Center, an eruption comparable to the 1783 eruption of Iceland’s Laki volcano “would have the potential to severely affect air travel at high northern latitudes for 6 months or more”.

With air travel restricted over Russia due to the ongoing geopolitical crisis in Ukraine, air travel would be limited to the Pacific from China and Japan to North America and south to Australia, South America and Africa. Long-haul routes to/from North America that use European airspace would either have to be canceled or re-routed, which would significantly increase flight time and costs.

Scientists are unsure of the magnitude of this volcanic event taking place in Iceland. Today’s eruption occurred after a short window of intense seismic activity; more than 10,000 earthquakes have been recorded around the volcano since Saturday, including 2 with a magnitude of 5.0 or greater.

For now, there is only limited gas release and no ash plumes from the volcano. “The risk to populated areas and critical infrastructure is considered very low and there have been no disruptions to flights,” the Icelandic Foreign Ministry tweeted. The Icelandic Meteorological Office, the Icelandic equivalent of the United States National Weather Service and USGS, continues to monitor the eruption and will alert authorities if a dangerous ash cloud forms at the site of the eruption. ‘today.

Iceland is no stranger to volcanic activity. There are 32 active volcanic systems in Iceland, with an eruption likely in one of them at least every 5 years. Today’s eruption is the 7th in Iceland in the past 21 years.