A lingering volcanic ash plume forced extended no-fly restrictions over much of Europe on Saturday, as Icelandic scientists warned that volcanic activity had increased and showed no sign of abating - a portent of more travel chaos to come.
Although the ash plume has grown, a northerly wind was expected to allow enough visibility for scientists to fly over the volcano on Saturday. Scientists want to see how much ice has melted to determine how much longer the eruption could spew ash. 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 if prevailing winds are right.
“The activity has been quite vigorous overnight, causing the eruption column to grow,” Icelandic geologist Magnus Tumi Gudmundsson told The Associated Press on Saturday. “It’s the magma mixing with the water that creates the explosivity. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.”
An expansive cloud of grit hovered over parts of western Europe on Saturday, triggering extended flight bans that seemed likely to disrupt world leaders’ plans to attend Sunday’s state funeral for Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria in the southern city of Krakow.
South Korean Prime Minister Chung Un-chan was the first to announce he was cancelling his trip to Poland, while President Barack Obama, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and German Chancellor Angela Ms. Merkel still planned to attend. Kaczynski’s family has said they want the funeral to go ahead as planned.
Aviation experts say the volcanic plume has caused the worst travel disruption Europe - and the world - has ever seen.
On Saturday, British and German officials extended their closure of airspace until at least 0000 GMT (8 p.m. EDT). The Belgian, French and Swiss governments extended their ban until Saturday evening.
Italian aviation authorities were closing airspace in northern Italy on Saturday until midday (1000 GMT; 6 a.m. EDT), with airports in Milan and Venice to close.
Denmark and Finland’s airspace also remained closed, while Norway and Sweden said some air space in the far north could be opened as the cloud moves south. Air space in the central and southern parts of the Nordics was expected to remain closed at least until Sunday afternoon.
Serbia also closed a small strip of its airspace in the north of the country and said it could close more later. Belarus and Ukraine introduced closures and restrictions.
Australia’s Qantas cancelled all flights to Europe on Saturday, and passengers were being offered refunds or seats on the next available flight. The airline said it was not known when flights would resume. Cathay Pacific was already cancelling some Europe-bound flights leaving Hong Kong on Sunday.
“I’ve been flying for 40 years but I’ve never seen anything like this in Europe,” said Swedish pilot Axel Alegren, after landing his flight from Kabul, Afghanistan, at Munich Airport; he had been due to land at Frankfurt but was diverted.
Southern Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull (ay—yah—FYAH’—plah—yer—kuh—duhl) volcano began erupting for the second time in a month on Wednesday, sending ash several miles (kilometers) into the air. Winds pushed the plume south and east across Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia and into the heart of Europe.
Authorities told people in the area with respiratory problems to stay indoors, and advised everyone to wear masks and protective goggles outside.
The air traffic agency Eurocontrol said about 16,000 of Europe’s usual 28,000 daily flights were cancelled on Friday - twice as many as were cancelled a day earlier.
U.S. airlines cancelled 280 of the more than 330 trans-Atlantic flights of a normal day, and about 60 flights between Asia and Europe were cancelled.
The International Air Transport Association says the volcano is costing the industry at least $200 million a day.
Extra trains were put on in Amsterdam and lines to buy train tickets were so long that the rail company handed out free coffee.
Train operator Eurostar said it was carrying almost 50,000 passengers between London, Paris and Brussels. Thalys, a high-speed venture of the French, Belgian and German rail companies, was allowing passengers to buy tickets even if trains were fully booked.
Ferry operators in Britain received a flurry of bookings from people desperate to cross the English Channel to France, while London taxi company Addison Lee said it had received requests for journeys to cities as far away as Paris, Milan, Amsterdam and Zurich.
The disruptions hit tourists, business travellers and dignitaries alike.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel had to go to Portugal rather than Berlin as she flew home from a U.S. visit. Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg managed to get a flight to Madrid from New York but was still not sure when or how he would get back home.
The military also had to adjust. Five German soldiers wounded in Afghanistan were diverted to Turkey instead of Germany, while U.S. medical evacuations for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are being flown directly from the warfronts to Washington rather than to a care facility in Germany. The U.S. military has also stopped using temporarily closed air bases in the U.K. and Germany.
In Iceland, torrents of water have carried away chunks of ice the size of small houses. Sections of the country’s main ring road were wiped out by the flash floods.
More floods from melting waters are expected as long as the volcano keeps erupting - and in 1821, the same volcano managed to erupt for more than a year.
Iceland, a nation of 320,000 people, sits on a large volcanic hot spot in the Atlantic’s mid-oceanic ridge and has a history of devastating eruptions. One of the worst was the 1783 eruption of the Laki volcano, which spewed a toxic cloud over Europe, killing tens of thousands.