The quiet skies
Remembering Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano
How many times do we recall massive stoppages of air travel? This millennium alone, there was a U.S. ground stop after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a 60% reduction in commercial air passengers globally from 2019 to 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a flight ban across much of Europe in 2010 when an Icelandic volcano erupted.
Eyjafjallajökull in southern Iceland had started its activity sequence in December 2009, leading to a side blast on March 20, 2010. On April 14, 2010, heat from the volcano melted part of the glacier on top, the percolating water met magma (hot, molten rock) inside the mountain, flashing to steam. The rapid expansion of volume from water to steam blows out rock, which we see as an explosive volcanic eruption.
Here, we witnessed a 5.5 mile-high ash plume. A stable weather system blew it over the rest of Europe and held it in place for several days.
When an aircraft flies into a volcanic ash cloud, the ash can enter the cockpit, impeding the pilots. The ash can clog and abrade flight instruments, including airspeed indicators and engines.
Since commercial flights began, over 100 have encountered enough volcanic ash to be a safety concern. So far, no crashes have been attributed to ash. Flights over Indonesia in 1982 and Alaska in 1989 had all their engines stop working and were gliding in for a forced landing/ditching. The pilots eventually restarted engines and brought each aircraft in safely for an emergency landing without any casualties.
These experiences were enough to justify a flight ban as Eyjafjallajökull’s ash wafted across the continent. It prevented crash deaths, but the full toll is hard to calculate. In scenes that the COVID-19 pandemic made familiar, people were separated from dying loved ones, while transportation of organs, bone marrow, and transfusion blood was impeded. Medical procedures were canceled or postponed, as medical staff could not return home.
In Norway, all volunteers and staff with the Norwegian Red Cross were placed on emergency standby to assist with land-based evacuation of people injured or sick who would normally have been transported by air. Visitors grounded at Norway’s airports needed help for rooms, food, and water.
Individual stories made the headlines. Norway’s Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, was in New York for a summit with the U.S. president. The media showcased him governing Norway remotely from a new-fangled handheld device: an iPad. As this was pre-Zoom, a University of Bergen doctorate defense was conducted via Skype. Remote working was amazingly revolutionary!
Others did not let the lack of air travel halt them. British comedian John Cleese was stranded in Oslo, so he reportedly paid over $5,000 for a taxi to Brussels to hop on a train back to the United Kingdom.
Although estimates indicate that over 800,000 passenger air journeys were lost for Norway, many people found alternative routes, completed their tasks without travel, or postponed their journeys. Tabulating net losses is not straightforward.
Despite the adjustments, the situation tottered on the edge of being unmanageable. Had the grounding continued for just a few days longer, many industries would have shut down because of lack of parts and products. Some medicine and food stocks would have run out with few plans in place for emergency deliveries, such as by risking military aircraft or passenger-less jets or via fast ships.
Yet the likelihood of a prolonged ash blanket is low. Even with a volcano continually spewing out ash, it disperses in different directions as weather changes. Airport closures for days at a time might occur, but different airports would close at different times. Nonetheless, long-term shutdowns over a wide swath remain a realistic scenario.
The key is preparedness. We know it could happen, so be ready. And not only for aircraft, but also consider that volcanic ash kills crops, jams computers, and infiltrates every nook and cranny—most notably our lungs, leading to short-term breathing difficulties and long-term lung scarring plus possible cancers.
Eyjafjallajökull was not the first and it will not be the last. With terrorism, disease, and solar flares interfering with electronics and giving high radiation doses, in addition to volcanic ash, should we assume that we will always have frequent, affordable, global transport?
This article originally appeared in the July 29, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.