Friday, April 16

A deadly cloud of ash

Source: BBC news photo

Today’s big news story was meant to be an inaugural television debate between leaders of the nation’s major political parties. Instead, headlines are dominated by another unprecedented event. For the first time in living memory the nation’s airspace has been closed to all non-emergency flights. Similar restrictions are also in place for the Republic of Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and France.

This unprecedented action was taken after an erupting volcano in Iceland blasted clouds of deadly ash more than 16,764 metres into the air. The eruption under a glacier in the Eyjafjallajoekull area is the second such event in less than a month. As it continues, a growing ash cloud is progressively making its way across northern Europe. As you can see from the Met Office's warning map below, by morning the entire UK is forecast to be covered. As a result, from noon today, all flights in the UK’s airspace were cancelled and will remain grounded until at least 1.00pm tomorrow.

Volcanic ash has proven deadly to aircraft in the past. Perhaps the most famous incident in 1982 involved a British Airways plane flying to Perth, Australia. As it flew through a fresh ash cloud high above Indonesia, all four of its engines failed and the aircraft began losing attitude. The pilots struggled for more than ten minutes to restart the engines. A similar incident occurred above Alaska in 1989. Again, all four engines shut down and disaster was narrowly averted when one was successfully restarted minutes later.

Tonight’s news reports claim that more than half a million passengers have been affected by the grounding of an estimated 5,000 flights. Ash has already started falling on the ground in northern Scotland. The eruption under the Eyjafjallajoekull glacier is still intensifying, and the wind direction is expected to bring further ash clouds into UK airspace until the weekend.

In 2008, Garry and I stayed a hotel least than 20km away from Eyjafjallajoekull. From our hotel room we could see the massive ice field crowning nearby mountains. You can see this spectacular sight in the image above. It's hard to imagine this pristine scene being dominated by a enormous black ash cloud.

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