On The Scene, At The Volcano

A plume of ash spewing out of an Icelandic volcano has stranded air travelers across Europe for a third straight day. It's the worst disruption for the airline industry since the days after Sept. 11, 2001. NPR's Joe Palca is in Iceland and tells host Guy Raz that the plume looks like dark cauliflower surrounded by blue skies.

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GUY RAZ, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Air travelers across Europe are still stranded at airports today for the third straight day. It's the worst airline disruption since the days after September 11, 2001. The airports in London and Frankfurt will be closed until tomorrow. Paris airports won't operate until Monday morning at the earliest. And all of it because of a volcanic eruption in Iceland more than 1,500 miles away.

We begin our coverage this hour with an update from that actual volcano and NPR's Joe Palca who's there.

JOE PALCA: What I'm seeing in front of me - what I see is a white glacier on the side of this volcano. And then at the top of the glacier, you can see this giant plume. It's just amazing. I mean, right now it looks a little bit like dark cauliflower, I would say, heading into the sky.

There's two levels to this plume. One is a whitish plume, which is the water vapor that's going into the air and the other is much, much darker and that's the ash that is causing all the trouble for air travel. The ash contains various noxious things. And one of the worst is the silicates, which is like glass which can gum up aircraft engines.

RAZ: Now, otherwise, are the skies clear and blue with just big plumes?

PALCA: Oh, God, no, it's beautiful. It's a gorgeous day. I mean, I see maybe three or four clouds, but otherwise completely blue skies. And where I'm sitting is outside a resort hotel that a lot of people have come to watch this thing. And there are helicopters coming and going taking tourists and journalists, I can tell you, up to the volcano to take some pictures or to have a look.

RAZ: What are scientists saying about how long this eruption will continue?

PALCA: Guy, let me characterize what scientists are saying, not much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: What they're basically saying is they don't know.

RAZ: Yeah.

PALCA: What's really remarkable, earlier today, we were driving past this thing and it stops completely. And then we said, uh-oh, you know, we're about to do all these interviews and nothing's happening. And then it started again, and it's been going pretty much steadily ever since.

So the answer is they're prepared for it to last anywhere from another 15 minutes to several weeks or a couple of years.

RAZ: Now, the issue is the wind here, right, the wind patterns. Is there any sense that those wind patterns will shift the ash, the plume away from Europe any time soon?

PALCA: Not in the next couple of days. The latest forecast I heard from the Icelandic Met Office was the wind was going to continue blowing toward the east. And so, that would mean that it's still going to be going in a bad direction for Europe.

RAZ: So I understand, Joe, that very shortly you are going to accompany scientists into the plume, right, to take some samples?

PALCA: That's right. We're going to continue heading toward the plume, and actually into the plume, because the people I'm with, they are geochemists. And what they're interested in is the exact chemical composition of what's coming out of this thing because that tells them something about where in the earth it was produced, how long the magma that is making the ash has been sitting inside the Earth. And also, whether there are dangerous gasses that are being let off.

RAZ: That's NPR's Joe Palca. Joe, thanks so much.

PALCA: You're welcome.

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