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Iceland Warns Airlines of Ash Plume as Volcano Erupts

1996 Eruption in Iceland
An erupting volcano under Iceland's Vatnajokull glacier melts big gaps in the ice, Oct. 12, 1996. Vatnajokull is Europe’s largest glacier. Photographer: Michael Probst/AP Photo

Iceland warned airlines of a potential ash plume that could disrupt flights as one of the North Atlantic island nation’s biggest volcanoes erupted after a week of rumbling.

The aviation warning code was changed to “red,” signifying that an “eruption is imminent or in progress -- significant emission of ash into atmosphere likely,” the Icelandic Met Office said yesterday. Airspace above the eruption was closed, according to the island’s Civil Protection Agency.

The national police said scientists had detected a “small sub-glacial eruption” in the northern part of Vatnajokull, Europe’s largest glacier. The Bardarbunga volcano, which lies beneath the glacier, is 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) wide and rises about 1,900 meters above sea level. It last erupted in 1996 and can spew both ash and lava.

“The eruption is considered a minor event at this point,” the National Commissioner of the Icelandic Police said in the e-mailed statement. “Because of pressure from the glacier cap it’s uncertain whether the eruption will stay sub-glacial or not.” No ash plume was visible, they said.

Eurocontrol, the body that provides air-traffic control services across Europe, today said in a statement that the volcano “remains active with more earthquakes overnight, but no reports yet of any ash.”

Damage Engines

The seismic activity in Bardarbunga, which began on Aug. 16, has raised concern that airlines may face a repeat of the 2010 disruptions when a cloud belched from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano forced carriers to cancel more than 100,000 flights and caused about $1.7 billion in lost revenue. Ash is a menace to jetliners because the glass-like particles can damage engines by melting and congealing.

British Airways is “keeping the situation in Iceland under close observation” and “at present, all of our flights are operating normally,” it said in an e-mailed statement. A Virgin Atlantic flight was rerouted away from the volcano as a “precautionary measure,” spokeswoman Meigan Terry said in an e-mail. All other Virgin Atlantic flights were operating normally, she said.

SAS AB, Scandinavia’s biggest airline, said it’s monitoring the eruption and that it’s hard to tell how serious the situation will become, according to a statement.

‘Volcanic Eruption’

American Airlines Group Inc. and United Continental Holdings Inc. each are monitoring the situation and haven’t changed their schedules, spokeswomen from the two U.S. carriers said.

“Right now airlines are like an expectant father in a maternity ward’s waiting room.” said Henry Harteveldt, founder of Atmosphere Research Group, a travel-industry consulting firm in San Francisco. “However, instead of waiting for a bundle of joy, they’re waiting for an unwelcome volcanic eruption.”

Eurocontrol said yesterday that a “danger area” had been declared around the volcano.

If ash were emitted, the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre in London would release forecasts every six hours on its likely behavior and density, Eurocontrol said.

The Icelandic police said they had closed the Jokulsargljufur canyon and started to evacuate tourists there and around the Dettifoss waterfall.

“The situation at this stage doesn’t call for the evacuation of habitants in Kelduhverfi, Oxarfjordur and Nupasveit,” the police said. “People in those areas are encouraged to watch the news closely and have their mobiles switched on at all times.”

U.K. operator National Air Traffic Services Holdings Ltd., said in a statement that it was monitoring the situation with government agencies and regulators.

“As there has not been any volcanic activity above the surface, U.K. airspace remains unaffected,” the air traffic management company said in a statement posted on its website late yesterday.

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