Icelandic volcanic eruption potential for ‘cascade’ of flight cancellations and delays

Travellers have been advised to be prepared for a “cascade” of flight cancellations and delays if Iceland experiences an imminent volcanic eruption.

However, weather experts believe the impact will not be as severe as the 2010 ash cloud crisis which forced the cancellation of about 100,000 flights throughout Europe leaving 10 million passengers stranded when the Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted.

Seismic activity and other signs continue to point to an increasing risk for a volcanic eruption in near Grindavík, 15km south of Keflavik international airport, with a state of emergency declared and the town evacuated over the weekend.

The Icelandic Meteorological Office (IMO) said on Monday afternoon that the side size and intensity of seismic activity in the region is decreasing but the volcanic hazard assessment in and around Grindavík is unchanged from Sunday.

Almost 700,000 passengers were handled by Keflavik airport in October as Iceland continues to attract greater numbers of travellers. Flights are still arriving and departing as normal. 

Meteorologists from forecaster AccuWeather caution that there is the potential for impact to air travel over the coming weeks.

Chief meteorologist Jonathan Porter said: “Many people may remember the 2010 Eyjafjallajokull volcano eruption in Iceland, which caused travel chaos for weeks on end as the volcano produced a large plume of volcanic ash lofted high into the atmosphere, which dispersed over parts of the European continent. 

“Volcanic ash, if ingested in sufficient quantities, can result in jet engine failure – a serious threat to planes. As a result, during the 2010 eruption, as the ash cloud spread, civil aviation authorities in various countries shut down air travel, resulting in many travellers from Europe and beyond becoming stuck for weeks on end with no ability to fly.”

However, Porter said that the location and characteristics of Eyjafjallajokull and the current volcano near Grindavík means that the broader impact to air travel is not expected to be as severe this time.

The ash cloud was made more explosive in 2010 because molten lava interacted with a melting ice cap. Porter said, 

“The volcano near Grindavík is not encapsulated in an ice cap, but if it erupts, it can still introduce plumes of volcanic ash into the atmosphere, which can travel on the upper-level winds,” he added.

“Based on our preliminary information, people who are travelling to and from Europe during the next few weeks, especially during the United States Thanksgiving holiday, should closely monitor developments in Iceland. 

“Although it does not appear that this volcano will have as major an impact to air travel across Europe as we saw back in 2010, any volcanic ash sent into the atmosphere can result in portions of air space being closed. 

“Even small differences in the specifics of a volcano eruption and resultant lava flow can result in significant changes to its environmental impacts, so travellers will need to watch out for a potential cascade of flight cancellations and delays.”

 AccuWeather expert meteorologists say the upper-level winds across Iceland until Friday will largely be east to southeasterly towards Greenland. 

A storm is expected to remain south of Iceland into the weekend as it moves towards western Europe. This will change the upper-level winds to be out of the west-northwest towards Scandinavia, Ireland, and the UK, a pattern likely to continue into the first half of next week.

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