Iceland Volcanic Activity Could Go On For Months

  • British passengers board HMS Albion on April 20 in Santander, Spain. The Royal Navy's ship, carrying service personnel home from Afghanistan, stopped to collect approximately 200 British citizens who were left stranded when their flights were canceled because of volcanic ash.
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    British passengers board HMS Albion on April 20 in Santander, Spain. The Royal Navy's ship, carrying service personnel home from Afghanistan, stopped to collect approximately 200 British citizens who were left stranded when their flights were canceled because of volcanic ash.
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  • Smoke and ash from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano blow across a field April 19 near Nupur, Iceland.
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    Smoke and ash from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano blow across a field April 19 near Nupur, Iceland.
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  • A farm worker loads a truck with discarded fresh roses at a flower exporter's farm April 19 in Naivasha, Kenya. Kenya's flower exports are wilting under the economic burden of European airspace closures, leaving growers facing huge losses. These flowers had been packed and were ready to export but are now going to compost.
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    A farm worker loads a truck with discarded fresh roses at a flower exporter's farm April 19 in Naivasha, Kenya. Kenya's flower exports are wilting under the economic burden of European airspace closures, leaving growers facing huge losses. These flowers had been packed and were ready to export but are now going to compost.
    Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images
  • Lava erupts from the volcano under Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull glacier on April 19.  Europe began to emerge from a volcanic cloud Monday, allowing limited air traffic to resume and giving hope to millions of travelers stranded around the world.
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    Lava erupts from the volcano under Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull glacier on April 19. Europe began to emerge from a volcanic cloud Monday, allowing limited air traffic to resume and giving hope to millions of travelers stranded around the world.
    Brynjar Gauti/AP
  • A family from Reading, England, embraces after getting bus tickets to France at the bus station in Barcelona, Spain, on April 19. The family had been stranded in Barcelona since April 15.
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    A family from Reading, England, embraces after getting bus tickets to France at the bus station in Barcelona, Spain, on April 19. The family had been stranded in Barcelona since April 15.
    David Ramos/AP
  • Men labor to remove volcanic ash from the roof of a house, in Seljavellir, Iceland,  April 18.
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    Men labor to remove volcanic ash from the roof of a house, in Seljavellir, Iceland, April 18.
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  • Passengers wait to buy tickets at Termini central train station in Rome on April 18. Stranded airline travelers are turning to alternative transportation in attempts to get home.
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    Passengers wait to buy tickets at Termini central train station in Rome on April 18. Stranded airline travelers are turning to alternative transportation in attempts to get home.
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  • The Icelandic volcano that has kept much of Europe land-bound is far from finished spitting out its grit, and it offered up new mini-eruptions April 17.
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    The Icelandic volcano that has kept much of Europe land-bound is far from finished spitting out its grit, and it offered up new mini-eruptions April 17.
    Brynjar Gauti/AP
  • Farmers team up to rescue cattle from exposure to the toxic volcanic ash at a farm in Nupur, Iceland, April 17.
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    Farmers team up to rescue cattle from exposure to the toxic volcanic ash at a farm in Nupur, Iceland, April 17.
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  • Ice chunks carried downstream by floodwaters caused by volcanic activity lie on the Markarfljot riverbank April 16, about 75 miles east of Iceland's capital of Reykjavik.
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    Ice chunks carried downstream by floodwaters caused by volcanic activity lie on the Markarfljot riverbank April 16, about 75 miles east of Iceland's capital of Reykjavik.
    Brynjar Gauti/AP
  • Men near Myrdalssandur, Iceland, wrap a house vent in plastic film on April 16 to prevent the entry of airborne volcanic ash. Winds pushed the ash plume south and east across Britain, Ireland, and Scandinavia into the heart of Europe.
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    Men near Myrdalssandur, Iceland, wrap a house vent in plastic film on April 16 to prevent the entry of airborne volcanic ash. Winds pushed the ash plume south and east across Britain, Ireland, and Scandinavia into the heart of Europe.
    Brynjar Gauti/AP
  • Footprints in volcanic ash in eastern Iceland, left by scientists who collected samples to send to labs.
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    Footprints in volcanic ash in eastern Iceland, left by scientists who collected samples to send to labs.
    Omar Oskarsson/AFP/Getty Images
  • The MODIS instrument on NASA's Terra satellite captured an ash plume from Eyjafjallajokull volcano over the North Atlantic on April 15.
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    The MODIS instrument on NASA's Terra satellite captured an ash plume from Eyjafjallajokull volcano over the North Atlantic on April 15.
    MODIS Rapid Response Team/NASA via Getty Images
  • People wait for information about their flights at the Sofia airport in Bulgaria on April 16. Volcanic smoke and ash affect pilots' visibility and microscopic debris can cause plane engines to shut down.
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    People wait for information about their flights at the Sofia airport in Bulgaria on April 16. Volcanic smoke and ash affect pilots' visibility and microscopic debris can cause plane engines to shut down.
    Nikolay Doychinov/AFP/Getty Images
  • Smoke and steam hang over the volcano under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier on April 14. Volcanic ash drifting across the Atlantic forced the cancellation of flights in Britain and disrupted air traffic across northern Europe, stranding thousands of passengers.
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    Smoke and steam hang over the volcano under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier on April 14. Volcanic ash drifting across the Atlantic forced the cancellation of flights in Britain and disrupted air traffic across northern Europe, stranding thousands of passengers.
    Jon Gustafsson/AP
  • An image released by Meteosat on April 15 shows a dark cloud of volcanic ash over Iceland. As the ash spreads across northern Europe, it is forcing the closure of huge swaths of international airspace.
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    An image released by Meteosat on April 15 shows a dark cloud of volcanic ash over Iceland. As the ash spreads across northern Europe, it is forcing the closure of huge swaths of international airspace.
    HO/AFP/Getty Images
  • A man takes a picture of a road that has been washed away by floodwaters from the melting Eyjafjallajokull glacier, caused by the April 14 eruption.
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    A man takes a picture of a road that has been washed away by floodwaters from the melting Eyjafjallajokull glacier, caused by the April 14 eruption.
    Halldor Kolbeins/AFP/Getty Images
  • Iceland's second volcano eruption in less than a month caused part of the glacier to melt, resulting in heavy flooding and forcing up to 800 people to evacuate.
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    Iceland's second volcano eruption in less than a month caused part of the glacier to melt, resulting in heavy flooding and forcing up to 800 people to evacuate.
    HO/AFP/Getty Images
  • Ash from Iceland's latest volcanic eruption has caused the suspension of all London flights, on top of the nearly 300 flights already canceled.
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    Ash from Iceland's latest volcanic eruption has caused the suspension of all London flights, on top of the nearly 300 flights already canceled.
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  • Smoke billows from an erupting volcano near the Eyjafjallajokull glacier on April 14, near Reykjavik.
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    Smoke billows from an erupting volcano near the Eyjafjallajokull glacier on April 14, near Reykjavik.
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  • Lava lights up the night sky at the Fimmvorduhals volcano on March 27.
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    Lava lights up the night sky at the Fimmvorduhals volcano on March 27.
    Halldor Kolbeins/AFP/Getty Images
  • With lava still gushing, a small Icelandic volcano that initially sent hundreds fleeing from their homes has turned into a boon for the island nation's tourism industry, as visitors flock to catch a glimpse of the eruption.
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    With lava still gushing, a small Icelandic volcano that initially sent hundreds fleeing from their homes has turned into a boon for the island nation's tourism industry, as visitors flock to catch a glimpse of the eruption.
    Halldor Kolbeins/AFP/Getty Images
  • Tourists gather to watch lava spurt out of the Fimmvorduhals volcano, near the Eyjafjallajokull glacier.
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    Tourists gather to watch lava spurt out of the Fimmvorduhals volcano, near the Eyjafjallajokull glacier.
    Halldor Kolbeins/AFP/Getty Images
  • The March eruption occurred in an area where there is no glacial ice, which minimized the risk of flooding.
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    The March eruption occurred in an area where there is no glacial ice, which minimized the risk of flooding.
    Ragnar Axelsson/AFP/Getty Images
  • The volcanic eruption on March 21 forced more than 600 people to flee their homes in Iceland.
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    The volcanic eruption on March 21 forced more than 600 people to flee their homes in Iceland.
    Fiur Kjartansson/AFP/Getty Images
  • Smoke and ash spew out of a mountain volcano on March 21, 2010, in the region of the Eyjafjallajokull glacier in Iceland.
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    Smoke and ash spew out of a mountain volcano on March 21, 2010, in the region of the Eyjafjallajokull glacier in Iceland.
    Fiur Kjartansson/AFP/Getty Images

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Forecasters can do a good job of anticipating where the ash cloud from Iceland's spewing volcano is likely to spread in the coming days, but scientists can't tell how long the eruption could last.

The Eyjafjallajokull volcano could actually continue to erupt on and off for several months, and it could trigger a bigger eruption of an even larger volcano nearby. Volcanic ash can cause extensive damage to jets — even bring them out of the sky. The particles spewing forth are mostly microscopic bits of glass that can easily melt onto jet engine parts, block intake lines, ding windshields and scour aircraft bodies.

Weather bureaus around the world have scientists who specialize in following volcanic ash clouds.

Greg Gallina, who works at the Washington Volcanic Ash Advisory Center in Camp Springs, Md., says the nature of the ash in Iceland is typical.

"What makes this one really special is the location at which it's erupting," Gallina says.

That's because Europe's busy air corridors are downwind. The volcano itself is no big deal; Gallina says there have actually been much bigger eruptions in the past few years, in the Aleutian Islands and Russia. Satellites pick up information about these ash clouds, and some instruments can even see what they are made of. Forecasters can get a good idea about where they are heading, just as they forecast the weather.

"It's actually quite like the weather because of the fact that these particles are very small," Gallina says. "You can actually trace them along through the wind."

Smoke and steam hang over the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland. i i

hide captionSmoke and steam hang over the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland that erupted for the second time in less than a month. The eruption melted ice, shot smoke and steam into the air and forced hundreds of people to flee rising floodwaters.

Jon Gustafsson/AP
Smoke and steam hang over the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland.

Smoke and steam hang over the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland that erupted for the second time in less than a month. The eruption melted ice, shot smoke and steam into the air and forced hundreds of people to flee rising floodwaters.

Jon Gustafsson/AP

Once a cloud is in the air, forecasters can keep planes away. The trick comes in figuring out what's going to happen next, with the source of these clouds — the volcanoes themselves.

That job is left to the geologists on the ground.

Siguhrun Hainsdottir and her colleagues at the University of Iceland have been following the activity of the volcano for three months. At first it started with a gentle tourist-style eruption.

"Sometimes magma is just beautiful, [a] quite bubbly thing that comes out of the ground, and sometimes it's more violent," Hainsdottir says.

In this case, the eruption turned violent when the red-hot magma underground changed course and started coming up directly below a glacier. The mix of magma and ice is explosive, and how long that could last is anyone's guess.

"We wouldn't be surprised if it went on for months, but on and off, like we've seen in the last few weeks, where it comes up in one location and then it comes up on another location," Hainsdottir says. "That didn't surprise us."

Hainsdottir also says she wouldn't be surprised if the magma from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano crept underground just a bit to the east and flowed into the chambers of its much bigger volcanic neighbor, Katla, which has been unexpectedly quiet in recent decades. She she says an eruption there could trigger much more disruption than what's happening now.

"We were just looking at each other this morning when we realized Katla is probably able to do way much more than that," she says. "I would be worried when Katla goes up."

And she'll also be among the first to know.

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