Europe trembles as Iceland shudders

In April 2010 an Icelandic volcano – Eyjafjallajokull - famously shut down European aviation for nearly a week.

Now Bárðarbunga threatens. This is what the Icelandic Meteorogical Office has to say about it:

“Since the onset of the earthquake swarm at Bárðarbunga on Saturday [16 August] morning, around 2,600 earthquakes have been detected with the earthquake monitoring network.

“Throughout the whole sequence the majority of events has been at 5-10km depth. No signs of migration towards the surface or any other signs of imminent or ongoing volcanic activity have been detected. IMO is monitoring the area closely and will update in case of any changes.”

A depth of 5-10km sounds a long way down. But Iceland is on the mid-Atlantic ridge, where the North American and Eurasian plates of the earth’s crust are moving apart a few centimetres a year. If a fissure develops, things can change very fast.

If an airborne volcanic ash cloud drifts in Europe’s direction this time, will things be any different?

Yes, but if the ash event were identical to April 2010 there would still be considerable disruption, just not a blanked grounding. And as I write this, the forecast wind direction looks likely to carry the Icelandic ash toward Europe if an eruption happens any time in the next five days.

This time the world’s system of volcanic ash advisory centres (VAAC) will have better surveillance and computer modelling of ash distribution, better communications, and will provide risk zones for the airlines, ranging from no-go areas/height bands to discretionary sectors where the airlines make their own decisions.

No airline – yet – is equipped with airborne equipment enabling pilots to avoid ash clouds as they can already avoid storm clouds using weather radar. But EasyJet expects to be equipped next year. You can read all about it in this blog.

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