A new volcanic eruption in Iceland is threatening to do what a 2010 eruption did: shut down air travel between the United States and Europe. A volcanic eruption started earlier today at the Fagradalsfjall’s Geldingadalir volcano in the largely uninhabited Reykjanes peninsula of Iceland. The eruption is near the world-famous Blue Lagoon geothermal spa in the country’s capital of Reykjavik; the eruption isn’t far also from that city’s airport, Keflavik Airport. Today’s eruption is at the same region where a six-month eruption started in February 2021, near Grindavík.
While the 2021 eruption led to flight delays and cancellations in and out of Keflavik Airport, it did not impact broader trans-Atlantic flight operations. However, the 2020 eruption at Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano did. Much of the controlled airspace of much of Europe was closed to instrument flight rules traffic, resulting in what at the time was the largest air-traffic shut-down since World War II. The closure caused millions of passengers to be stranded in Europe and elsewhere around the world with tens of thousands of flights cancelled, including the important trans-Atlantic sector.
The disruption began in April 2010 when the volcano erupted, sending ash high into the atmosphere and into the jetstream, where ash was spread over Europe into some of the most traveled airspace in the world. Much of Europe’s airspace was closed from April 15 to 23; lingering ash clouds also forced air travel to be suspended over Scotland and Ireland on May 4-5, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Austria, and Germany on May 9, and Irish and UK airspace closed again May 16-17. In all, 107,000 flights were cancelled over the initial 8 day period, accounting for 48% of total air traffic which ultimately impacted more than 10 million passengers.
Volcanic ash can create significant harm to jet engines that fly through them or boat and automobile engines that ingest ash-filled air. Volcanic ash is hard and abrasive, and can quickly cause significant wear to various airplane parts such as propellers, turbo-compressor blades, and even cockpit windows. Because volcanic ash particles have a low melting point, it can melt in the combustion chamber of a jet engine, creating a ceramic or glass-like glaze that then sticks to turbine blades, fuel nozzles, and combustors. A jet engine that ingests just a small amount of ash could suffer from total engine failure.
Overheating and engine failure is also possible in cars and trucks since volcanic ash can infiltrate nearly every opening in a vehicle. Ash is also very abrasive; ash caught between windshields and wiper blades will scratch and permanently mark the windshield glass, and windows are susceptible to scratching each time they are raised, lowered, and cleaned.
After the incident in 2010, scientists explored previous eruptions and what their impact could be on modern-day aviation. According to Aon Benfield UCL Hazard Research Centre’s Professor Bill McGuire, an eruption comparable to the Icelandic volcano Laki eruption event of 1783 would “have the potential to severely affect air travel at high northern latitudes for 6 months or more.”
With air travel restricted over Russia due to the ongoing geopolitical crisis in the Ukraine, air travel would be restricted to the Pacific from China and Japan east to North America and south to Australia, South America, and Africa. Long-haul routes to/from North America that use European airspace would either need to cancel or re-route, adding significant time and cost to the flight.
Scientists aren’t sure how big this unfolding volcanic event in Iceland will be. Today’s eruption came after a short window of intense seismic activity; more than 10,000 earthquakes were recorded around the volcano since Saturday, including 2 with a magnitude of 5.0 or greater.
For now, there’s only limited gas release and no ash plume from the volcano. “Risk to populated areas and critical infrastructure is considered very low and there have been no disruptions to flights,” the Icelandic Foreign Ministry Tweeted on Twitter. The Icelandic Meteorological Office, the Iceland equivalent of the U.S. National Weather Service and USGS, continues to monitor the eruption and will alert authorities should a dangerous cloud of ash form at today’s eruption site.
Iceland is no stranger to volcanic activity. There are 32 active volcanic systems in Iceland, with an eruption likely at one of them at least every 5 years. Today’s eruption is Iceland’s 7th in the last 21 years.