Sitting on the ring of fire, Iceland is known to be prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. However, the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano had particularly damaging impacts to the economy and worldwide aviation. The volcanic event began in March of 2010 but activity only died down later in May. The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull was only recorded having a VEI of four, which isn’t large for volcanic eruptions, however the effects were substantial (Global Volcanism Program, 2013). Plumes of 10 km shut down air travel throughout Europe, and cost the aviation industry $250 million dollars per day (Gudmundsson et. al., 2011). Though no fatalities or significant harm resulted from the event, the aftermath prompted the changing of regulations in the aviation industry. This monumental natural disaster had costly effects and remains one of the most significant eruptions in world history. This paper will describe the background information surrounding the eruption, as well as the major consequences in the following weeks.
Iceland is home to over 100 volcanoes due to its mid-atlantic ridge and the hotspot it sits atop of, but its most famous one is Eyjafjallajökull. In the past, Eyjafjallajökull wasn’t as well known as Iceland’s other volcanoes such as Katla or Laki. However, in 2010 Eyjafjallajökull had a global impact by creating an ash plume so large it stopped air traffic all across Europe, causing economic issues throughout the region as well as world wide.
Iceland’s mid-atlantic ridge stems from the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates diverging, making Iceland prone to volcanic activity. Iceland has over 130 volcanic mountains, one of which will erupt every five years (Moerland, 2018). Eyjafjallajökull specifically is periodically active, having several eruptions in 900, 1612, and from 1821 to 1823 (Eyjafjallajökull, n.d.). These past eruptions began with basaltic eruptions on the flanks of the volcano, followed by the eruption of more silica-rich magmas from the volcano’s summit(Nerc). Preliminary ash analyses suggest that this pattern is being followed in the 2010 eruption(Nerc).
With a VEI (Volcanic Explosivity Index) of four, the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull was not one of the largest recorded eruptions, but the resulting damage was significant. With the first eruption occurring on March 20, 2010, there was little explosive activity but some production of lava (Lund & Benediktsson, 2010). However, later on April 14, with an eruption from one of the calderas, 25% of ice in the summit crater melted and flooded southern iceland (Loughlin). This more disruptive phase resulted in a large amount of magma and ice mixing. The outcome was a large plume of volcanic ash and gas which formed and spread out across the area, drifting south-east towards the Faroe Islands, northern Scotland, and Norway (Loughlin). This plume was later measured to be 10 km high, thus having a significant impact on the immediate area, as well as surrounding areas in Europe. Other researchers from the University of Iceland determined that there were 750 tonnes of magma being ejected every second from the volcano (Loughlin). By April 20, much of the ice had melted, and with little interaction between magma and ice, the volcano stopped producing large amounts of ash and instead began producing “fire fountains”. Explosive activity died down following these fountain like eruptions, but started up again in early May. Ash was once again being injected into the plume, resulting in an average pume size of 4-6 km but at times reaching as much as 9 km. By May 23, activity had virtually ended with little to no ash being ejected from the volcano (Loughlin).
Figure 1. An image captured on April 16, 2010 which pictures the major ash plume spreading from Iceland which polluted the air and prevented air travel across Europe (Earth Observatory, 2010).
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Eyjafjallajökull had a catastrophic effect on the airline industry, as airlines were set to lose £1.7bn over the eruption (Volcanoes.usgs.gov, 2016). The ash from the volcano that the airplanes would encounter would sandblast the windows and melt particles inside the jet engines, causing them to fail. Freighted items and Cargo were minimally affected as 1% of the UK’s trade, by volume, is carried by air. Eyjafjallajökull’s disruption had caused some real problems for companies trading perishable goods, including food and flowers, which depended on air freight. Since air travel was paused, most grounded transport companies benefited as passengers looked for alternatives– an increase in ferry and train passengers- to flying. Tourism was a special case as although the tourism industry lost money from customers unable to make the trip, stranded passengers unable to return home were also forced to spend more money than expected – offsetting some of those losses (Vanetti, 2010). As for environmental effects in regards to climate, Eyjafjallajökull did not have a sizable impact on the global climate. The eruption did not emit dangerous amounts of C02 to the point that the atmosphere would be heavily affected. Local ecosystems were much more affected as the eruption disrupted a lot of local plant and animal life. The floating ash settled on Europe’s fields & water systems and caused deadly consequences when ingested by livestock. The mix of pulverized rock and glass that spewed from the volcano is fatal to most plant species since it prevents photosynthesis; as a result, greenery in Iceland and parts of northern Europe suffered greatly (Taddeucci et al., 2011). Alas, economically or environmentally, Eyjafjallajökull clearly left its mark on the world.
The impact of the eruption goes far past the lava flow or the explosion itself. Since the ash caused a disruption in the air traffic and affected international travel, Eyjafjallajökull left scientists and regulators to rethink current safety precautions and european aviation. Previous to this event, scientists knew that ash and airplane engines were not a good mix but this extent of ash had never been experienced before with engines. The International Volcanic Ash Force was assigned to try and change the risk management that goes along with airplane engines and ash. (Guffanti, 2012). The eruptions gave more information to researchers and allowed for increased surveillance and measurements of ash in Iceland. More dopplers radar and cameras were added to the site of Eyjafjallajökull (Ulfarsson, 2011). The impact that Eyjafjallajökull had on aviation system is seen through the increased information, studies, and surveillance with the hopes that Iceland will be more prepared the next time that the volcano erupts and it will not have as much of an impact on aviation economics.
The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull goes far beyond the lava flow, it gave the opportunity for changes in aviation regulation and advances in volcanic science. Since the volcano erupted only 9 years ago, the likelihood of Eyjafjallajökull erupting within the next few years is not very likely but volcanoes are not easily predictable. However, currently, the volcano is deemed safe and is available for visiting. Eyjafjallajökull displayed how a volcano can impact an area other than just lava, it also showed the economic impact that a natural disaster can have.
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- Tupper, Mastin, & Lechner. (2012, December 1). Volcanic-Ash Hazards to Aviation—Changes and Challenges since the 2010 Eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, Iceland. Retrieved from http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2012AGUFMNH31C1627G
- Ulfarsson, G. F., & Unger, E. A. (n.d.). Impacts and Responses of Icelandic Aviation to the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull Volcanic Eruption: Case Study – Gudmundur Freyr Ulfarsson, Elizabeth A. Unger, 2011. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.3141/2214-18
- Vanetti, M. (2010). BBC News – Iceland volcano cloud: The economic impact. [online] Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8629623.stm [Accessed 23 Sep. 2019].
- Volcanoes.usgs.gov. (2016). Volcanic Ash Impacts & Mitigation – Impact of 2010 Eyjafjallajökull Eruption. [online] Available at: https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/volcanic_ash/ash_clouds_air_routes_eyjafjallajokull.html [Accessed 23 Sep. 2019].
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