Iceland Volcano: An Eyeful of Eyjafjallajökull

The power and wrath of Eyjafjallajökull came into dramatic clarity this weekend as the clouds parted for the first time since the glacier-topped volcano threw world air travel into turmoil.

View seen from a road leading to the Eyjafjallajokull volcano as it continues to billow smoke and ash during an eruption on April 17, 2010. (HALLDOR KOLBEINS/AFP/Getty Images)

As ash from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano continued to keep European airspace shut down over the weekend, affecting millions of travelers around the world, some government agencies and airlines clashed over the flight bans. Icelandic volcanologists told the Daily Telegraph, that it was impossible to predict how long the eruptions would continue or whether an even more violent neighbouring volcano might follow suit – as it has in the past.

Farmers team up to rescue cattle from exposure to the toxic volcanic ash at a farm in Nupur, Iceland, as the volcano in southern Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull glacier sends ash into the air Saturday, April 17, 2010. (AP Photo/Brynjar Gauti)

Iceland, the Europe’s youngest country, sits atop the Mid-Atlantic Ridge fault line between two great shifting tectonic plates and the primal landscape of glacial valleys, snowy volcanoes and bubbling geysers is still being shaped by these explosive forces deep below the surface.

“This is not even a major eruption, so it is startling to see the impact it has had,” said Matthew Jones, a British glacier expert who monitors volcanic activity at the Icelandic meteorological office. Eyjafjallajökull is indeed not one of the biggest or most volatile of Iceland’s 22 active volcanoes. But the precedents suggest that Britain and its European neighbours could face the fall-out for weeks or months to come.

A car is seen driving near Kirkjubaejarklaustur, Iceland, through the ash from the volcano eruption under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier on Thursday April 15, 2010. (AP Photo/Omar Oskarsson)

Hidden from the view by the mushroom of volcanic debris lies an even greater threat, the much larger crater of nearby Katla – named for its ferocity after a powerful witch in an ancient Icelandic saga. Eyjafjallajökull has only erupted three times since the Vikings settled the island in the ninth century, most recently nearly two centuries ago when it blew intermittently for 14 months in the early 1820s– an alarming enough prospect for air traffic across the Atlantic.

Magnus Tomi Gudmundsson, a geophysicist at the University of Iceland and expert on volcanic ice eruptions, said activity had intensified at the volcano on Friday. As winds have cleared visibility, a team of scientists hope to fly over the crater this weekend to assess how much ice has melted. “We really don’t have any means to determine how long this eruption might last or whether it would erupt again,” he told The Daily Telegraph.

The volcano in southern Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull glacier sends ash into the air just prior to sunset ON Friday, April 16, 2010. Thick drifts of volcanic ash blanketed parts of rural Iceland on Friday as a vast, invisible plume of grit drifted over Europe, emptying the skies of planes and sending hundreds of thousands in search of hotel rooms, train tickets or rental cars. (AP Photo/Brynjar Gauti)

“There’s an increased likelihood we’ll see a Katla eruption in the coming months or year or two, but there’s no way that’s certain.” The eruptions have wreaked havoc for the farmers who raise sheep, cattle and horses on the pastures around the volcano. Lava is not the danger here, but rather the floods set off as the molten rock melts the glacier that fills the crater.

Locals received automated text message and phone calls instructing them to evacuate three times – once because of the initial explosion and twice because of floods. And on the south-east side, properties remain shrouded in dust and there are fears for the welfare of animals that ingest the glass-like shards of ash.

Lightning streaks across the sky as lava flows from a volcano in Eyjafjallajokul April 17, 2010. (REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)

Thorkell Eiriksson and Anna Runolfsdottir have watched the drama unfold from their farmhouse, the nearest property to Eyjafjallajökull, where they live with their two young children.

“The lava from the eruption in March just looked like a pretty little candle twinkling in the distance,” said Mr Eiriksson. “But when we felt the earthquakes last week, we knew this one was very different. It’s just surreal to sit here and watch the plumes of ash up there and think of the chaos this is causing around the world.”

A woman makes a phone call in the empty arrival hall of Prague's Ruzyne Airport after all flights were grounded due to volcanic ash in the skies coming from Iceland April 18, 2010. Air travel across much of Europe was paralyzed for a fourth day on Sunday by a huge cloud of volcanic ash, but Dutch and German test flights carried out without apparent damage seemed to offer hope of respite. (REUTERS/David W Cerny)

More than 25,000 flights have so far been grounded in what has been billed as the single biggest aviation incident since the Second World War. However, some restricted airspace is now beginning to open up and some limited flights are being allowed now as airlines are pushing for the ability to judge safety conditions for themselves. [via Telegraph (UK); photos via Boston’s Big Picture]

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