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16 Apr, 2010 11:21

Icelandic volcano affects air traffic across Europe

European air traffic have been crippled for several days now as the colossal cloud of Icelandic volcanic ash continues to blow slowly across Northern Europe.

Some 20 countries have shut down all or most of their airspace, although restrictions are gradually being lifted in Sweden, Norway and Ireland. It will still be several days before Europe's air travel is fully restored.

The volcanic cloud is slowly making its way south and east, affecting millions of travelers from Britain to Russia. There is no let-up in sight as aviation officials continue grounding thousands of flights.

Twelve thousand people in Russia have been affected as a result of 1071 flights disrupted by the volcanic ash. From Moscow airports, flights to Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Paris, Helsinki, Vienna and Warsaw have been cancelled. It is still unclear when air traffic will be restored.

Russian air carrier Aeroflot is attempting to ease passenger concerns by switching from small jets to big ones for the destinations that are still available. As an option, there are flights to Nice and some Spanish airports that continue to operate. From there the passengers are advised to take trains or cars to their place of destination.

Russian Railroads has also stepped in to combat the travel chaos by adding cars to their international trains.

Evgeny Andrachnikov, head of Dexter, a Russian air taxi company, says that while larger planes remain grounded due to the ash cloud, some light aircraft may still be able to fly.

"Traditional commercial carriers fly at high altitudes. The eruption has made this dangerous, though, as the ash can get into the engines,” Andrachnokov said. “The aircraft we operate, like the Swiss Pilatus jet, are capable of flying at low altitudes, where ash doesn't clog the engines.”

Aleksey Kokorin, head of the climate change program at the World Wide Fund for Nature in Moscow, says the ash cloud is unlikely to become a health hazard for Russians. Kokorkin says the cloud is not heavy enough to cause acid rain or air pollution, adding that the only possible damage could be related to the aviation industry.

Paul Martin Holm, an associate professor in the University of Copenhagen's Department of Geography and Geology says that what makes this eruption particularly “violent” is the fact that it is taking place under ice.

While anxious passengers wait in overcrowded terminals, specialists say the worst might not be over.

The eruption is not over yet, and we do not know when it is going to end. The eruptions are happening in series, and every one is bigger than the previous one. For example, this eruption is 15 times bigger than the first one which happened on March 21,”said Pavel Plechov from the Geology Department of Moscow State University.

So when it stops, we will be able to predict when the ash cloud will settle. But it won't happen soon. Although the ashes that prevent flights will settle in a few days, tiny particles might stay in the atmosphere for a few years and affect the climate.”

Icelandic scientists are now closely watching the neighbouring volcano, which is much bigger and much more dangerous. If that wakes up, it might destroy much of Iceland,” concluded Plechov.

Dr. Thorvaldur Thordarson, a volcano expert at the University of Edinburgh, doesn’t see any signs of the eruption stopping.

“What it special about this particular eruption is that it is subglacial, meaning it took place underneath a glacier and in doing so hot magma (at about 1000 degrees Celsius) is melting a lot of the ice. It generates a lot of small ice particles that are lifted up into the atmosphere by the eruptive plumes,” Thordarson told RT.

Business analyst and UK Special Representative for Trade in Russia Roger Munnings told RT who suffers most from the situation.

“Given the timing, just before the weekend, there will be businessmen going to their families who have been doing business internationally, there will be people traveling for leisure purposes and to see their relatives. There will also be a lot of children who return to school after Easter holidays,” Munnings said. “For airline companies, it is going to cost 1% of the year’s turnover. Coming out of the 2008 economic recession and with business confidence returning, it’s a very bad thing to happen.”