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Volcanic Ash Forces Unprecedented Airspace Shutdown in Europe

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Eyjafjallajokull erupts in Iceland.
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(Photo by Ingolfur Juliusson/Reuters)

Much of Northern Europe’s airspace is closed until further notice due to a massive cloud of dangerous ash spreading southeastward from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland.

The UK has grounded all flights in its airspace as of 12 noon local time (7am ET), the first time this has occurred since September 11th, 2001. Eurocontrol and local authorities in Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Germany, Luxembourg Sweden, Norway, Finland and the Netherlands have already closed or plan to close all or portions of their skies today. As the cloud expands and moves south and east, flights in France, Russia and other nations may be halted later today.

British authorities have suggested flights might be allowed by 1800L this evening, but this is subject to change. British Airways has canceled all UK flights until tomorrow. Heathrow says it will be closed “until further notice.”

Volcanic ash, composed of tiny rock and glass particles, can wreak havoc on an aircraft engine. In 1982, British Airways Flight 9, a 747-200 (G-BDXH) inadvertently flew through an ash cloud over the Indian Ocean, causing the failure of all four engines. During a harrowing emergency descent to Jakarta, the crew managed to get three of the engines spinning again, but not before many passengers had written farewell letters to their families. A nearly identical incident occurred aboard KLM Flight 867 in 1989, a brand new 747-400, when it flew through a cloud produced by Alaska’s Mount Redoubt.

Eyjafjallajokull first erupted in late March, doing little damage creating an exciting show for Icelandic residents and spurring a boom in “volcano tourism.” A secondary eruption yesterday, however, occurred beneath a glacier, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of farmers threatened by flooding. Subglacial eruptions are known for their extensive ash output.

This volcano’s previous major eruption, in 1821, lasted two years. An extended disruption of air travel in Europe would likely do significant damage to the local and world economies.

UPDATE [2:00PM ET]: Latest forecast from UK Met Office shows no improvement through 1200Z on Friday.

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