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Volcano paralyzes air traffic in Europe

April 22nd, 2010

The crater at the summit of the volcano in southern Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull glacier on April 17, which has released a lingering volcanic ash plume that has paralyzed air traffic in Europe. (AP)

Eyjafjallajökull. No, that is not a misprint, but the name of a large volcano on Iceland’s southern coast that is spewing ash across Europe and has been halting air traffic for most of the past week.

The volcano is believed to have had a minor eruption on March 20, followed by the much larger second explosion, which occurred last Wednesday and is responsible for the flight cancellations. The ash makes visibility almost impossible and, more importantly, can cause a plane’s engines to fail.

The gigantic cloud of ash, which can be seen from space, has been wreaking havoc on the airline industry in Europe. On Tuesday, the European Union began lifting air transportation bans set on the day following the eruption, last Thursday.

But, just hours later, the British National Air Traffic Service reported that the eruption was still getting stronger and that a new cloud of ash is headed toward Europe that remains unpredictable. People have been stranded away from their homes and destinations. Some airline travelers visiting certain parts of Europe have been stuck in these airports for the past week or so.

Some of these travelers include John Carroll students studying at Regents College in London, who were visiting Berlin this past weekend. Sophomore Sarah Schaner, studying in London, described her plan to journey back to Great Britain.

She said, “They are telling us we will most likely not get a flight for about a week, so we are going to have to get a bus to Holland, which is nine hours, and then take a 14-hour ferry and then a two-hour train ride.”

Many world leaders had made plans to attend the funeral of Poland’s former president, Lech Kaczynski, who died last week with his wife and 90 others in a plane crash (unrelated to the ash) in Russia. President Barack Obama had plans to make the trip to Poland, but was forced to cancel due to the restrictions on air travel.

According to Giovanni Bisignani, the head of the International Air Transportation Association, the estimated economic impact reached $1 billion. Bisignani called it “embarrassing” and a “European Mess.” This surpasses the economic loss of the closing of the U.S. airspace during the three days following the attacks of September 11, 2001.

However, there is hope on the horizon. Although the volcano continues to erupt, volcanologists say that the explosions are much less powerful than the original that occurred last Wednesday.

The plume being sent into the air is now only three miles high, as opposed to the original height of eight miles, which would only affect Iceland and its surrounding waters. “There is no new material being added to the ash stream affecting aviation in Europe,” said Matthew Roberts, a scientist at the Iceland Meterological Office.