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volcano in Iceland erupts Eyjafjallajoekull volcano near Reykjavik, Iceland, erupts with lava, steam, smoke, ash and lightning on April 18, 2010. (Photo: Ragnar Th Sigurdsson/www.arctic-images.com)

Volcano Blows Its Top in Iceland

Cloud of ash brings air traffic to a screeching halt throughout Europe

By Laura Leigh Davidson | April 20 , 2010
Map: ©Jim McMahon
Map: ©Jim McMahon

A powerful volcanic eruption rocked Iceland last week and this week its effects are still being felt as far away as Hong Kong and Kenya.

Blowing winds spread a cloud of ash from the exploding mountain to skies across much of northern Europe, creating unsafe flying conditions that have wreaked havoc with air traffic in Europe and beyond.

Unsafe Skies

Because of the unsafe conditions in the skies, air traffic in the United Kingdom, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and other nearby countries had to be completely shut down for almost a week.

Stopping air traffic in Europe had a ripple effect in airports around the globe. Flights headed to the affected countries were also grounded, leaving millions of travelers stranded. Many airports around the world looked more like campgrounds, as would-be passengers had to sleep in the terminals, unable to get home from their journeys.

Although the ash cloud started to clear on Monday, it could take many more days for airlines to deal with the backlog of canceled flights and get travelers to where they want to go. Most countries have cautiously begun to lift flight restrictions, but the volcano in Iceland continues to erupt, and airspace conditions over Europe are subject to change.

Glass particles in volcanic ash can clog plane engines and cause them to shut down. That's why flying through volcanic-ash clouds can be so dangerous.

Icelandic Eruption

The volcano that erupted in Iceland is named Eyjafjallajoekull (pronounced AY-yah-fyah-lah-YOH-kuul), and means island-mountain in the Icelandic language. It is located beneath a glacier of the same name. Although it is considered one of Iceland's smaller volcanoes, it still packs a powerful punch. The mountain spewed plumes of ash, smoke, and steam thousands of feet into the air when it erupted on April 14.

The heat from the volcano also caused part of the Eyjafjallajoekull glacier to melt, leading to severe flooding.

Hundreds of people who live in nearby towns were forced to evacuate.

The exploding mountain had been quiet for almost 200 years. The last time it erupted, though, lava and ash flowed for more than a year, from December 1821 to January 1823.

Ash Cloud Affects Businesses Worldwide

Delay-weary travelers are not the only ones affected by the halt in air traffic in and over Europe. More than 95,000 flights have been canceled, costing multiple airlines millions of dollars.

Businesses that depend on airplanes to ship their goods have also been affected. Kenya, a country in Africa, has a huge fresh vegetable, fruit, and flower industry. Businesses there export most of their goods to grocery stores throughout Europe.

Because no planes have been able to get into or out of European airports for more than a week, Kenya's fresh produce companies were unable to move their products. Most of the perishable items that need to be shipped quickly have been left to rot.

This means that the workers who harvest and pack the produce have had nothing to do. In most cases, if the workers can't harvest and pack, the companies can't pay them.

In Japan, carmaker Nissan has had to put a temporary stop to production at two of its factories. The manufacturer ran out of an important car part that it usually gets from a company in Ireland. The car part company in Ireland can't ship its merchandise until flying is safe.

More Lava, Less Ash

While businesses and travelers try to figure out how to get to where they want to go, scientists in Iceland say the volcano's eruption is starting to change. They say there is less ash in the cloud that is now coming from the volcano. The power of the eruption is not as strong, so smoke and steam are not being pushed as far into the sky. Also, lava has begun to flow down the sides of the volcano. Experts say this is a sign that the eruption is calming down.

For more on the science behind volcanoes and how they erupt, check out this article from The New Book of Knowledge.

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