Air chaos to last weeks as even more volcanic ash belches out

18.4.2010 (Independent on Sunday)

Air chaos to last weeks as even more volcanic ash belches out

By Susie Mesure and Nina Lakhani

Britain is today bracing itself for what scientists warn could be weeks of disruption
after experts predicted the volcanic dust cloud blanketing Europe will continue
to cause chaos for the foreseeable future.


As first reports emerged of ash from the cloud landing in the south-east of England,
meteorologists said volcanic activity in Mount Eyjafjallajokull, in Iceland, increased
yesterday, forcing officials to extend flight restrictions yet again in an unprecedented
air lockdown over much of the Continent.

With no sign of the eruption easing, volcanologists said ash, which is drifting
in a cloud extending up from 8,000-30,000 feet and stretching across much of northern
and central Europe, could disrupt flights for up to six months. Airlines cancelled
thousands more flights this weekend, prolonging misery for millions of people.

Graeme Leith, who heads the Met Office’s defence forecasting service, said: “This
is Mother Nature. We’re stuck in this phase until the volcano decides to sleep.
Even if it cuts off today, which it shows no sign of doing, the ash would take
another two to three days to fall out from the skies.” Paul Knightley, of the
forecaster Meteo Group, added that the UK could be in for “quite a prolonged spell”
of problems.

“The activity has been quite vigorous overnight, causing the eruption column
to grow,” Icelandic geologist Magnus Tumi Gudmundsson said yesterday. “It’s the
magma mixing with the water that creates the explosivity. Unfortunately, there
doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.”

Fallout from the vast ash plume stranded travellers as far away as Sydney. Delta
Airways, Qantas, Virgin, British Airways and Cathy Pacific were among airlines
to extend flight cancellations. At press time, Lufthansa grounded all flights
worldwide until lunchtime today at the earliest.

World leaders are affected by the aviation lockdown: President Obama is expected
to abort plans to attend today’s state funeral of Poland’s President Lech Kaczynski
and his wife Maria in the Polish city of Krakow.

Consumers were warned that shops could start running low on supplies of fresh
vegetables and fruit, and analysts said economic costs could spiral. Howard Archer,
chief European economist at IHS Global Insight, said “the longer that the problem
does persist, the more serious will be the economic repercussions”. British and
Irish scheduled airlines are losing up to £28m a day, with the total bill to European
carriers hitting $200m, according to the International Air Transport Association.

One of the UK’s biggest fresh fruit importers said business had ground to a halt.
Anthony Pile, chairman of Blue Skies, said the company was losing £100,000 a day.

More than three-quarters of flights were lost yesterday across Europe, with barely
5,000 taking off or landing, the Eurocontrol air traffic agency said. This compares
with 22,000 on a typical Saturday. Among the flights that did make it were three
British Airways planes from New York, which scraped into Glasgow and Prestwick
airports in Scotland.

Around Europe, 73 transatlantic flights landed yesterday morning, less than a
third of the 300 that would normally arrive. The situation deteriorated from Friday,
when 10,400 flights out made it out of the normal 28,000.

Met Office forecasters said it would take a prolonged change of wind direction
for the situation to improve. “The UK and much of Europe is under the influence
of high pressure, which means winds are relatively light and the dispersal of
cloud is slow. We don’t expect a great deal of change over the next few days,”
Mr Leith said.

Passengers anxious to get home are inundating the ferry companies. Most P&O
crossings are booked up until Wednesday although the company is saving its remaining
foot passenger services between Dover and Calais for anyone “desperate to get
home”, a spokesman said.

British Airways, which has cancelled all long-haul and short-haul flights into
and out of the UK today, said it had no firm contingency plans on how to deal
with the passenger backlog.

Hundreds of oil industry workers were left stranded offshore or waiting for flights
onshore after all three North Sea helicopter operators were grounded in Aberdeen.

Despite reports of a sulphur-like smell and light coverings of ash on the ground
in parts of Scotland, including Aberdeen, health officials continued to play down
health risks.

Volcanic ash started falling out of a clear, bright sky in west London yesterday,
with residents in Chiswick reporting dust on their cars. Scientists are now testing
the deposits to ascertain if they pose any health risks. Initial tests from three
samples of dust tested at Aberdeen, Lerwick and East Kilbride by the Scottish
Environment Protection Agency suggested any risks were “minimal”.

Mount Eyjafjallajokull began erupting last month, but it was only last Wednesday
that its seismic activity became serious. Volcanologists are worried the eruptions
could set off a sister volcano, Katla, which is much bigger. Because the volcano
is situated below a glacial ice cap, the magma is being cooled quickly, causing
plumes of grit that can be catastrophic to plane engines if prevailing winds are
right, scientists said.

Sigrun Hreinsdotti, a geophysicist at the Faculty of Earth Science at the University
of Iceland, warned: “Even if this stops right now we don’t know if that’s the
end of the story. More magma pressure could build up and erupt elsewhere, possibly
under Katla, which has a much bigger glacier so would be much more explosive.”

and there are travellers’ tales and other links ….



The flightradar website shows plane movements, in real time, over Europe.   (Not
every flight or airline is included, but most are).   It is possible to see just
how few flights there are at present – and later compare on a normal day.