Volcanic Ash Halts European Air Travel


Richard Harris, science correspondent, NPR
Joe Palca, science correspondent, NPR

Plumes of ash from a volcano in Iceland forced airlines to cancel flights, at a cost of more than a billion dollars. The enormous ash cloud also interrupted shipments of fresh fruits, vegetables and other products from Africa to Europe.

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As the spume of ash from Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano diminishes, the effects begin to dissipate. After major disruptions to air traffic across Europe over the past five days, airports in Portugal, Spain, the Balkans, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey opened today. Scotland, France and probably more will follow tomorrow. But some wonder whether that's safe, even now. And questions remain about the effect on health, the climate, the economy. And, volcanologists warn, it may not be over yet.

If you've flown through volcanic ash, if you live downwind of a volcano, tell us your story; 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's go first to NPR science correspondent Joe Palca, who's been covering this eruption in Iceland.

Joe, thanks very much for being with us today.

JOE PALCA: You're welcome, Neal.

CONAN: And you - we heard from you this morning, on MORNING EDITION, say it was beginning to subside a little bit.

PALCA: Well, yes, that seems to be the case. What they found was that starting about 8 o'clock yesterday morning, the size of the plume was greatly diminished. And so there's less stuff being spewed out into the air. Now, you would think that that's - you know, that's just good news all by itself and there's no - nothing to worry about. But accompanying that decrease in the amount of ash was an increase in the amount of tremors or, you know, the seismic activity coming from the volcano. OK, so what's going on? People aren't totally sure.

At one point, they thought maybe some - the eruption was changing from chunks of magma that was being spewed out as ash to something that was more like a lava flow. But now, that doesn't seem to be the case because they don't see any lava. So it's a little bit of a mystery. It could just be, you know, giving its last hiccup before it goes quiet - or it could be getting ready to do something else.

CONAN: We also heard that this volcano - whose name I attempted once and will not again but - that it had a...

PALCA: Yeah. I was going to say, it's a hard thing to do on live radio, Neal. I was very impressed.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much. But nevertheless, that it has a sister volcano nearby and sometimes, the eruptions can be linked together.

PALCA: Yes. They are - they have historically been linked together. That one has an easier name. It's called Katla. And the other thing that people have taken note of is that it's been - that Katla tends to erupt once every hundred years, and the last one was in 1918. So you're getting close to a hundred years. All the indications - or I should say, there are no indications that Katla is getting ready to erupt. There's - they see no change in the activity from that volcano.

CONAN: All right. So that's good news as well. And the other part of this is -well, I mean, there's been a fair amount of volcanologists telling us, well, in response to questions - how long is it going to last, how bad is it going to be -and they keep saying they don't know.

PALCA: Yeah. I've heard that a lot, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: It's - I think what we're learning here is that predicting volcanoes is what we call an imprecise science.

CONAN: Are there any health problems measurable there in Iceland?

PALCA: There haven't been any yet. I think the thing they're most concerned -well, of course, breathing in the ash is a bad thing. And it's pretty hard to avoid. So most people are - I mean, because if you're in the plume, it's very fine stuff and it's hard to filter out. So, you know, there may be some people who've had problems, you know, from that acute exposure to the ash. I haven't heard about it, but that may have happened.

But the thing they're more worried about is that there's a fluoride gas that can come out of a volcano like this, and the fluorides can get into the groundwater and can get into the grasses. And in high enough concentrations, it can be very, very devastating to animals, livestock and people. And so, they're watching very carefully, the fluoride concentrations. And so far, they can detect it, but not at what they would concern - not at a level they would be concerned about.

CONAN: And we should note that you, and the great majority of the population in Iceland, are there in Reykjavik, the capital - upwind.

PALCA: Yes. Well, side wind, I would say. The wind is blowing to the south, mostly, at the moment - toward the south, and Reykjavik is about 120 kilometers to the west. So we're not actually upwind, but we're not in the wind.

CONAN: Well, that's the important thing, in any case.

PALCA: Right.

CONAN: Also with us here in Studio 3A is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris.

And Richard, nice to have you with us today.

RICHARD HARRIS: A pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And Joe is there in Iceland. The entire country has been formed by volcanoes. This is a volcanic island. This is a hotspot that's going to keep erupting, well, as long as we can think, right?

HARRIS: That's right. Yeah. It's the part of the world where the North Atlantic Plate, these tectonic plates, and the European Plate are spreading apart. And what do you know, there's also a lot of magma coming up from - directly from the Earth's mantle at this point. It explains why Iceland is there to begin with. And I was there a few years ago, and there are volcanoes all over the place. And it's, you know, it's built of volcanic activity and it will - it remains one of the most volcanically active places in the world.

CONAN: And as we look at this ash that's being spewed into the atmosphere, there was an example of this not all that long ago - well, last century - but anyway, Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, which - well, that was a much bigger deal, wasn't it?

HARRIS: That was much, much bigger than this volcano. And one thing it did was, it spewed its stuff directly into the stratosphere. It went so high that it went into the stratosphere. And it takes a long time for stuff to wash out of the stratosphere. This ash that's erupting now will eventually get washed out by - it'll maybe just fall to the ground, or it may get rinsed out by rain. But once you're up in the stratosphere, there's not much - it takes a long time to get out. And that actually ended up cooling the planet for a period of years, because there were some sulfur particles, sulfuric acid and so on up there that actually had a cooling effect. It blocked some of the incoming sunlight, and we sort of have a sunshade for a number of years.

So we're not seeing that with this volcano, but it's certainly well within the realm of things that, you know, commonly can happen as a result of volcanic eruptions.

CONAN: And the - this is partly politics and partly science. The difficulties of flying through volcanic ash, is this well-proven? Are European officials, were they wise to halt traffic completely for the last five days?

HARRIS: Oh, yeah. It can cause tremendous damage to planes - economic damage. Fortunately, no jet engine plane has ever crashed, but there have been instances where planes have been - have lost all four engines, and they were lucky to restart them after going through these ash clouds. So they are very serious issues. But the trick is really knowing - being able to identify what's dangerous airspace and what's safe airspace.

The worst stuff, you can tell pretty easily by looking at satellite imagery. But you may have some uncertainty about what altitude is safe to fly at and how much - what the concentrations are, sort of between the ground and the place where the ash is thickest. So it's a - you know, generally, the rule has been, well, let's just draw a big circle around this area, and just stay clear 'til the ash goes away. That works fine if it's something around the Aleutian Islands or something like that. It doesn't work so well when the circle happens to be around most of Western Europe.

CONAN: And we should say that there were NATO officials today reporting that there was some damage to the engines of an F-16 that was among a flight of planes that flew through this. They're, at the same time, sort of supporting the aviation officials to close down. On the other hand, people should be under no illusions that we're not ready to defend our airspace. So they're...

HARRIS: Right.

CONAN: ...kind of caught in betwixt and between there. But IATA, the International Air Traffic organization, saying the European officials went way overboard, overreacted. We're at least a billion dollars in losses. And how come they can't act centrally? Each country's opening and closing their airports on their own.

HARRIS: Yeah. Well, it is, fundamentally, a judgment call. There's a group that operates around the world - that are the meteorologists who say, here's what the situation is, here's where we forecast the ash will be, and here are the altitudes we think it will be at. But it's not their call about what to do about airspace. And that, obviously, in an area in Europe where that - those decisions are rather balkanized, it would - it has led to a lot of confusion and, as you say, a lot of people up in arms, said that there wasn't better coordination and that these decisions weren't made more forcefully.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Our guests are NPR science correspondents Richard Harris, here in Studio 3A, and Joe Palca, who's with us from Reykjavik. Let's go to Richard, and Richard's calling from Anchorage. We're girdling the globe here.

RICHARD (Caller): Yeah. How are you doing today?

CONAN: Very well. Thank you.

RICHARD: I just had a quick comment and a question. Last year - we in Anchorage all go to Hawaii for vacations. So last year, we went to Kona, Hawaii. And we were experiencing the volcanic, so-called vog, the volcanic fog there and suffering with that. Then on our route flying back, Mount Redoubt blew, and we had to divert - it's a direct flight from Honolulu. We had to divert to Seattle. So we got it on both ends. And that's just a matter of life living here in Anchorage. We, of course, had the KLM flight that was - flew through the ash. And surprisingly, that wasn't mentioned with Reykjavik very much.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. What happened to that KLM flight?

RICHARD: Yeah, right.

CONAN: What happened to the KLM flight?

RICHARD: Well, they were flying - I think it was about 15 years ago, and the KLM flight was going through...

CONAN: Oh, this was the one Richard referred to momentarily, a moment ago, that they lost all four engines.

RICHARD: Yes. Yes.


RICHARD: And so, that caused substantial damage to the 747, and it was very expensive. But they restarted en route.

CONAN: So, Richard...

RICHARD: It's a real part of life here.

CONAN: Did you feel as if the Earth was out to get you? Everywhere you went, something exploded?

(Soundbite of laughter)

RICHARD: Yeah. And so, one of my questions is that the issue of adapting and overcoming, you simply have to drive - but of course, you can't. The Europeans can't drive but - to the States. But has anybody talked about the repositioning of cruise lines to do the trans-Atlantic transportation over...

CONAN: Well, Joe Palca, let me ask you. Is the QE2 going to be making trans-Atlantic runs any time soon?

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: I have no idea. I'm sitting in Reykjavik. I don't think it's stopping here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: It's - this - we're talking about - well, obviously, people stranded, Richard, because they can't fly across the Atlantic and land at these airports that are on the other side, and vice versa. There's also been some economic effects, as John Ydstie has been reporting - all kinds of industries that rely on air transportation for just-in-time parts and of course, anything that's perishable, from flowers to vegetables.

HARRIS: Exactly. Flowers in Africa, they're - of course, it's a - the system is you grow them and when they're ready to go, you bring them to the warehouse and they quickly airfreight them to Europe. And they've had very devastating losses there. So, yes, it's a big problem. And I don't know about the QE2, either, but certainly, the British Navy is talking about bringing people back to the U.K. because...

CONAN: Just assemble on the beach there at Dunkirk and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

HARRIS: That's right.

CONAN: ...we'll get you there.

HARRIS: I will say, although the air routes into and out of the U.K. may actually be back in service before too long, so that may...

CONAN: Scotland is supposed to be opening tomorrow. I think Schiphol in Amsterdam is supposed to open tonight. So, anyway, thanks very much for the call. We're talking about the effects of the volcano - the unpronounceable volcano in Iceland.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can go next to - this is Robert, Robert with us from Charlotte.

ROBERT (Caller): Hello. How are you?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

ROBERT: Hey, a couple of questions. First, Iceland, I know, has already been hit, before this happened, with severe economic problems. And I'm wondering: Is there any positive outlook for them? I mean, aside from a lot of people such as Joe Palca and others visiting and dropping hotel money and that sort of stuff, is this - is there any possible way for this to be a positive thing for them? Plus, how did Joe Palca get there? And thirdly, we've been hearing a lot about ash and stuff, well, what about other ejecta? Has that been doing any damage to Iceland? So I'll just take my questions off the air. Thanks.

CONAN: All right. Joe, how did you get there?

PALCA: Well, yes. I'll start with the easy one. I took Icelandic Air. None of the flights coming to or from the United States to Iceland have been affected by this volcano. It's...

CONAN: Airports are on the eastern side of the island?

PALCA: Well, actually...

CONAN: Oh, western, western.

PALCA: ...it's along the western side of the island.

CONAN: Western side. Yeah.

PALCA: So they don't actually cross the plume, which is to the east of us. So I've checked the flights to New York and Boston today; they were running. And I - my flight was on time, and no problem when I flew in on Friday morning. So that's how I got in. Just showed up at the airport. That was easy.

As far as other material being ejected - well, I mean, there's a complicated mixture of stuff that gets thrown up by the volcano, especially when the hot magma comes in contact with ice above it. Ice actually explodes if you heat it up quite rapidly, and so that explosion is what aerosolizes a lot of the material that's coming out of the earth, and that's what - part of what makes the ash cloud.

So there's a lot of that. There's a lot of water vapor, and there are a lot of these gases, volatile gases that are given off that can also cause problems. As far as the economic impact, well, there's a lot of stranded travelers here. But I can't imagine that there's going to be too many other good things for the economy by this event. I mean, Icelandic Air has had to cancel a lot of its flights heading toward Europe, so I can't think of a positive to put on this, unless probably they'll get a lot more volcanologists coming here to do some work.

CONAN: I - Joe, I have to ask you. The - a lot of the debts that were owed in the Icelandic economy were to banks in Britain and, I think, in Denmark. Is there some dark pleasure that - some schadenfreude that the people there in Iceland are seeing a little payback here?

PALCA: Neal, I think you've said it perfectly. There's a bunch of people who are, yes, they're crying crocodile tears about the problems that the English are having right now.

CONAN: Just an update: Schiphol is open - outside of Amsterdam. Romania opened its airspace, Scotland tomorrow. That according to the Associated Press.

Let's go next to Zee(ph), and Zee is in Phoenix.

ZEE (Caller): Yes, sir.

CONAN: Yes. Go ahead, please.

ZEE: Yeah. I have a question. Now that we - the flights cannot happen across Europe, is there a possibility that you could have trans-Atlantic flights originating from Africa? I, for one, have never understood why we have to - in Africa, we have to fly to Europe and across to the USA. What's the problem with having a direct flight from Africa to Europe? And would that be an alternative for European flights?

CONAN: Well, as I'm just thinking about the globe, it certainly - if this were a long-term problem, Richard, this could be a partial solution.

HARRIS: I suppose so. It's a very long distance, but it's not unheard of, I guess. I think Joe...

PALCA: Oh, I've been...

HARRIS: ...haven't you flown on the long flight?

PALCA: Yes. I was just going to say, I - there was a direct flight from Dakar to New York, or New York to Dakar. So I don't think that goes over the Pole -at least not by my geography lessons. So, yes, it seems possible. I don't think it's something that could be instituted rapidly, since it's shorter to go from Europe straight to America, then to fly through Dakar.

CONAN: By they way, the New York Times today quotes a joke that is apparently circulating in Iceland. It was the last wish of the Icelandic economy that its ashes be spread over Europe.


(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: When are you coming home, Joe?

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: I'm scheduled to fly out on Tuesday but - that's tomorrow, I guess. But the - if the winds shift, I could get stuck as well. And I'm at the winds of fate, Neal.

CONAN: Well, enjoy a hot tub for us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: I don't think I'm going to have time, but if I see one, I'll try and jump in and have a plunge for you.

CONAN: They're all geothermically heated, and they're publicly - public institutions there, so you should try to do that if you can, Joe.


CONAN: All right.

PALCA: I'll keep that in mind.

CONAN: All right. Joe Palca, hoping to be stuck in Iceland. And he's there in Reykjavik. And NPR science correspondent Richard Harris, here with us in 3A. Richard, thanks very much.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

CONAN: Tomorrow, an update on the rebuilding process in Haiti as the rainy season arrives there. Join us for that.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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