Danger: Volcanic Ash

Is Iceland’s Bardarbunga volcano about to explode? It’s the question that’s had holidaymakers on the edge of their seats for weeks now. Since mid-August, the Icelandic Met office has issued a series of warnings that a large-scale eruption may be imminent. As a result, the threat level has been repeatedly raised and lowered, in response to new information about the volcano’s condition.

Then, while all eyes were on Bardarbunga, there was news that a volcano on the opposite side of the world had erupted. Early on the 29th August, Mount Tavurvur in the Pacific island nation of Papua New Guinea sent clouds of ash, dust and debris high into the sky, forcing locals to evacuate the area and affecting Pacific air travel. Luckily, no deaths or injuries have been reported.

Meanwhile, back at Bardarbunga, the waiting continues. So far, the eruptions have been too small to cause problems outside the volcano’s immediate vicinity, but experts are monitoring the situation closely, and are ready to impose a ban on air traffic if necessary. Back in 2010, the eruption of another Icelandic volcano called Eyjafjallajökull led to widespread disruption across Europe, with flights grounded for weeks over fears that clouds of volcanic ash could damage planes and cause crashes. With planes unable to fly in or out of Europe, passengers were left stranded all over the world. The International Air Transport Association estimates that the total loss to airlines was around $1.7 billion – and travel and tourism wasn’t the only industry to suffer. Air deliveries had to be postponed, with various consequences: farmers in Africa were unable to sell fresh flowers to Europe, leading to substantial loss of income; the importation of medicines and fresh fruit and vegetables was temporarily impacted in some parts of the world; and some factories had to slow down or suspend production, because they were unable to get hold of raw materials or components.

As a result, the threat of another large eruption in the area is being taken very seriously indeed. The first indication that an eruption at Bardarbunga might be imminent came on August 16th, when a significant number of earthquakes were recorded. Similar levels of seismic activity were observed over the following days, and by the end of the month, lava was seen erupting to the surface through nearby fissures. However, while these eruptions looked dramatic – with the lava fountains reaching heights of 50 metres or more – they did not produce significant amounts of ash. This means that planes are still ok to fly, for the time being at least.

Watch Danger: Volcanic Ash to find out why ash is so dangerous to planes.