A new study looks at the impact on air travel of a major eruption in Iceland’s largest active volcano.
A major eruption in Öræfajökull, Iceland’s largest active volcano, could paralyse air traffic right across Europe for days or even weeks, a research group at the University of Iceland warns.
The ice-covered volcano covered by a glacier has erupted twice since medieval times, in 1362 and 1728, the earlier version carrying ash as far as Western Europe. It could explode again soon.
There are no signs of an imminent eruption right now, but it is ten months since a disturbance inside Öræfajökull was detected, with elevated seismicity, a visible depression in the surface within the caldera and the presence of geothermal gases from a glacial river.
The geothermal activity beneath Öræfajökull is assessed to be high relative to previous decades, the new study says.
The level of earthquake activity there has been stable in recent months, according to the Iceland Met Office, with signs that the tremors are becoming smaller. After raising the Aviation Colour Code for Öræfajökull from green to yellow, the met office has downgraded it back to green.
The Eyjafjallajökull eruption in April 2010 was not a particularly sizable one by Icelandic standards, says an article published in Morgunblaðið by Guðni Einarsson, then translated and reprinted in Iceland Monitor. But it wreaked international havoc.
The ash plume emitted by the volcano, combined with unfavourable weather conditions and strict precautionary regulations at the time, halted air traffic in Europe for days and prevented millions of passengers and goods from reaching their destinations.
The event led to the greatest disruption in air traffic since World War II and caused estimated worldwide losses of $5 billion, with over 100,000 flights cancelled.
The new study assumes a total eruption time of six months, four times longer than in 2010, which it says is perfectly feasible. This would impact air traffic especially at low altitudes, such as take-offs and landings, particularly across Scandinavia and the UK.
A second scenario, based on the eruption in 1362, looks at the effect of a very large amount of ash emitted over a short period. This would paralyse air traffic in Europe for up to two to three weeks and could even reach across the Atlantic. The thick layer of pumice on the surface of the ocean could also hinder shipping traffic and fishing.