Predictions on how Iceland’s imminent volcanic eruption will impact air travel continue to circulate, harking back to themes of 2010 when an eruption grounded flights across Europe for many days.
Residents in southwest Iceland were on edge over the weekend, waiting in suspense to see if whether a volcano in the Reykjanes Peninsula, in the area of Fagradalsfjall, will erupt.
The threat began earlier this month when a river of magma below the earth’s surface triggered thousands of earthquakes, leading the Icelandic Meteorological Office (IMO) to announce that an eruption could happen at any time.
In response, the fishing town of Grindavik was evacuated on Nov. 10 as magma flowed under the earth’s surface while thousands of tremors triggered cracks in the streets of the community.
Residents have since been being allowed to return to their homes to rescue their possessions and pets, but the evacuation order remains in effect.
Grindavik, home to 3,400 residents, is about 50 kilometres southwest of Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, and not far from Keflavik Airport, Iceland’s hub for international flights.
READ MORE: Threat of volcanic eruption rocks Iceland, Blue Lagoon spa closes
The region is also home to Blue Lagoon geothermal resort, a popular tourist attraction, which will be closed until at least the end of November, according to a statement on the spa’s website.
Since Oct. 24, scientists at the IMO have been monitoring a rise in seismic activity on the Reykjanes Peninsula, according to Visit Iceland, the Nordic nation’s tourism authority.
Now, amid daily warnings of a looming (and dangerous) eruption, Iceland is stuck in limbo.
“The chance of an eruption has increased,” the IMO warned on Friday (Nov. 17). “[It] can start anytime in the next few days.”
A repeat of 2010?
Iceland sits just above a volcanic hot spot in the North Atlantic and averages an eruption every four to five years.
The most disruptive was in 2010 with the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull volcano, which spewed thick ash into the sky, grounding flights across Europe over fears that the ash could damage aircraft engines.
And the ash clouds didn’t just hover over Iceland.
When Eyjafjallajokull volcano exploded, winds carried plumes of ash over to continental Europe, crippling the aviation sector.
Due to that event, some 100,000 flights, over several weeks, were cancelled, affecting some 7 million passengers, resulting in more than a billion in losses to airlines, according to Oxford Economics.
Last week, the Accuweather Global Weather Centre warned of possible impacts to air travel over the coming weeks if Fagradalsfjall erupts.
“Volcanic ash, if ingested in sufficient quantities, can result in jet engine failure – a serious threat to planes,” said Jonathan Porter, AccuWeather’s chief meteorologist, as reported by Forbes. “As a result, during the 2010 eruption, as the ash cloud spread, civil aviation authorities in various countries shut down air travel, resulting in many travelers from Europe and beyond becoming stuck for weeks on end with no ability to fly.”
The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) says it has measures in place to prepare for a possible volcanic event, taking cues from 2010.
“In the event of an eruption and development of an ash cloud, the agency will work with other aviation actors to assess the impact for aviation and make recommendations accordingly,” reads a statement on EASA’s website.
Iceland Air, Iceland’s flag carrier, has not cancelled any flights to or from Iceland just yet.
“Seismic activity is ongoing in the Southwest region of Iceland,” reads a statement posted to the airline’s website. “We are in close contact with Icelandic authorities and are monitoring the situation closely.”
“The situation has no effect on flights and we will keep passengers informed if there are any changes.”
Gas instead of ash?
One volcanologist says the volcano in Fagradalsfjall poses no threat to air travel, noting that it is different from the eruption that took place 13 years ago.
Speaking to the Daily Mail, Professor Matt Watson of Bristol University‘s School of Earth Sciences called the eruption of 2010 “an unusual set of circumstances.”
“It was on a glacier which threw up a mixture of water and ash in weather conditions which were unfortunate in terms of travel,” Watson said.
The magma seen in recent eruptions on Iceland’s Reykjanes peninsula is “very fluid,” he said, which means bubbles of gas could escape instead of ash.
“An unlikely scenario”
Visit Iceland, meanwhile, is urging travellers to not buy into the hysteria, reminding visitors on its website that there are currently 46 volcanoes actively erupting around the world “without any significant disruption to international air traffic.”
“Flights are operating normally and unlikely to be affected in case of an eruption,” the tourism board wrote in a Nov. 20 update on its website. “While the possibility of air traffic disturbance cannot be entirely ruled out, scientists consider it an unlikely scenario,” the organization wrote. “The potential disruption to flight traffic would depend on factors such as the location and size of the eruption.”
“Typically, the impact of volcanic eruptions is confined to specific, localized areas. Notably, previous eruptions in the area did not impact flights to and from the country.”
For now, it’s a waiting game.
“It is impossible to predict whether a volcanic eruption will occur or exactly when or where in the vicinity of Grindavík a potential eruption might break out,” the tourism board wrote.
For the latest on volcanic activity in Iceland’s Reykjanes Peninsula, click here.
Don’t miss a single travel story: subscribe to PAX today! Click here to follow PAX on Facebook.