How an Icelandic Volcano Shut Down Europe’s Airspace

Eyjafjallajökull Awakes

by Dinah Deckstein, Manfred Dworschak, Marco Evers, Cordula Meyer, Gerald Traufetter

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein.
Der Spiegel
17 April 2010

The eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull has brought European aviation to a near-standstill in the worst disruptions since 9/11. Airlines are hemorrhaging money and tens of thousands of passengers are stranded. But if the weather had only been a little different, the whole crisis might never have happened

…While Eyjafjallajökull did nothing more within Iceland than cause a car bridge to collapse, it brought Europe’s aviation industry to its knees 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) away.

One volcano achieved what hurricanes, terrorists and flu viruses never managed — Heathrow, Paris, Frankfurt, Schiphol and all of Europe’s other major hubs came to a standstill on Friday afternoon. Airlines cancelled 17,000 flights, while Frankfurt and Amsterdam airports set up thousands of camp beds. Losses for airlines are estimated at up to a billion dollars.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was forced to interrupt her flight home from a visit to the US, landing in Lisbon instead. A Medevac Airbus air ambulance carrying injured German soldiers home from Afghanistan only made it as far as Istanbul. And British comedian John Cleese of Monty Python fame found himself stuck in Oslo. He hired a taxi and was able to reach Brussels for a fee of €3,800 ($5,100).

“I’ve worked in the industry for 25 years, but this dwarfs anything else I’ve experienced up to now — even the events following September 11,” says Michael Garvens, director of Germany’s Cologne Bonn Airport. Stranded shipping containers are piling up where normally up to 50 FedEx, DHL and UPS cargo planes arrive every evening. The airport’s background noise is no longer roaring jet engines, but twittering birds…

…This forced shutdown hit the air freight industry at the worst possible time. Many airlines reduced their capacity in the course of the global financial crisis. But after the economy recovered surprisingly quickly, especially in Asia, transport capacity was suddenly tight.

Cell phones and computers were piling up in Hong Kong and Shanghai late this week. Global transportation company Kühne + Nagel is desperately looking for temporary storage space.

Companies everywhere are taking precautions against a worst-case scenario. German engineering giant Siemens used some of the last planes in the air to stock up its replacement parts storage facility in Mississippi, to ensure supplies for clinics and hospitals in the US. Logistics experts at automaker BMW brooded over how they will transport leather seat covers from South Africa to Bavaria if the situation intensifies.

Spouting Ash

It all began midday on Wednesday, when a telephone rang in Exeter, southern England. Icelandic meteorologists were calling to inform their British colleagues at the Met Office, the United Kingdom’s national weather service, that Eyjafjallajökull was spouting ash and a cloud of volcanic dust was blowing eastward from Iceland…

…Weather also conspired against Europe. Just as the volcano was erupting, the North Atlantic jet stream was passing over Iceland from the northwest, carrying myriad sharp-edged particles on a collision course with Europe’s air fleets. “It’s as if it’s jinxed,” says Helmut Malewski, who is tracking the ash cloud at Germany’s National Meteorological Service’s central forecasting office. “The wind blew from the east all winter. But just now, when the volcano goes active, it blows from the northwest.” Dryness was another factor. “One strong rainstorm over the North Sea would have washed out the ash and helped us dramatically,” Malewski says.

Disrupting the Climate

Still, things could have been a lot worse. In the past, volcanoes have disrupted the Earth’s climate again and again. After the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991, average global temperatures cooled by half a degree Celsius. Volcanoes are also the suspected culprits behind the mini ice age that occurred during the 17th and 18th centuries…

The complete article, with a photo gallery, continues at Der Spiegel.

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