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Archive for Sunday, April 18, 2010

Ash may hover for days, disrupting uncertain Europe

April 18, 2010

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— The Icelandic volcano that has kept much of Europe land-bound is far from finished spitting out its grit, and offered up new mini-eruptions Saturday that raise concerns about longer-term damage to world air travel and trade.

Facing days to come under the volcano’s unpredictable, ashy plume, Europeans are looking at temporary airport layoffs and getting creative with flight patterns to try to weather this extraordinary event.

Modern Europe has never seen such a travel disruption. Air space across a swath from Britain to Ukraine was closed and set to stay that way until today or Monday in some countries, affecting airports from New Zealand to San Francisco. Millions of passengers have had plans foiled or delayed.

Activity in the volcano at the heart of this increased early Saturday, and showed no sign of abating.

“There doesn’t seem to be an end in sight,” Icelandic geologist Magnus Tumi Gudmundsson told The Associated Press on Saturday. “The activity has been quite vigorous overnight, causing the eruption column to grow.”

Scientists say that because the volcano is situated below a glacial ice cap, the magma is being cooled quickly, causing explosions and plumes of grit that can be catastrophic to plane engines, depending on prevailing winds.

In Iceland, winds dragged the ashes over farmland to the southwest of the glacier, causing farmers to scramble to secure their cattle and board up windows.

With the sky blackened out and the wind driving a fine, sticky dust, dairy farmer Berglind Hilmarsdottir teamed up with neighbors to round her animals and get them to shelter. The ash is toxic — the fluoride causes long-term bone damage that makes teeth fall out and bones break.

“This is bad. There are no words for it,” said Hilmarsdottir, whose pastures near the town of Skogar were already covered in a gray paste of ash.

Forecasters say light prevailing winds in Europe — and large amounts of unmelted glacial ice above the volcano — mean that the situation is unlikely to change quickly.

“Currently the U.K. and much of Europe is under the influence of high pressure, which means winds are relatively light and the dispersal of the cloud is slow,” said Graeme Leitch, a meteorologist at Britain’s National Weather Service. “We don’t expect a great deal of change over the next few days.”

Obama cancels trip

All air space in Poland — hosting a huge state funeral for late President Lech Kaczynski — remained closed Saturday to flights above the cloud level of 20,000 feet because of the ash cloud.

Some low-level flights are being allowed in the south, however, which is how the Polish Air Force will be able to ferry the coffins of Kaczynski and his wife from Warsaw to Krakow aboard a prop-powered military cargo plane early this morning.

Several world leaders, including President Barack Obama, had to abandon plans to attend the funeral because of ash-related disruptions.

European businesses are testing their flexibility to cope with this new crisis.

The aviation industry, already reeling from a punishing period, is facing at least $200 million in losses every day, according to the International Air Transport Association.

Scandinavian airline operator SAS AB said it has given notice of a temporary layoff of up to 2,500 ground service staff in Norway as a result of the flight disruptions. Airline spokeswoman Elisabeth Manzi said it is a precautionary move, and that said eventual temporary layoffs may not affect all 2,500 notified.

Budget airline Norwegian ASA, losing $1.5 million to $1.7 million a day because of the ash-driven closures, is holding meetings with unions Monday to discuss potential temporary layoffs, spokeswoman Asta Braathen said.

‘Like a refugee camp’

Around the world, anxious passengers have told stories of missed weddings, business deals and holidays because of the ominous plume. Stranded passengers reported the delays were causing financial hardships. Some had to check out of hotels and sleep in airports.

“It’s like a refugee camp,” said Rhiannon Thomas, of Birmingham, England, describing the scene at New York’s Kennedy Airport.

Her family spent the night at the airport Friday, and may be there for days before they can get a flight home. “At least we got beds,” said Thomas’ mother, Pat, referring to the hundreds of narrow blue cots brought in to JFK’s Terminal 4. “Some people slept on cardboard.”

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