Iceland ash cloud closes Greenland airspace

May 23, 2011 - 7:14 AM
APTOPIX Iceland Volcano

In this photo taken on Saturday, May 21, 2011, smoke plumes from the Grimsvotn volcano, which lies under the Vatnajokull glacier, about 120 miles, (200 kilometers) east of the capital, Rejkjavik, which began erupting Saturday for the first time since 2004. Iceland closed its main international airport and canceled domestic flights Sunday as a powerful volcanic eruption sent a plume of ash, smoke and steam 12 miles (20 kilometers) into the air. (AP Photo/Jon Gustafsson) ICELAND OUT

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — Ash from an Icelandic volcano moved over Greenland and forced the cancellation of a single flight there on Monday, but the most of the plume was expected to blow north of Scandinavia and disrupt few, if any, flights over Europe.

Danish air traffic officials said the ash from the Grimsvotn (GREEMSH-votn) volcano reached eastern Greenland, a semiautonomous Danish territory. Air Greenland said its Monday flight between the island's main airport and Copenhagen was canceled as a result.

Aviation officials in Norway said the cloud might also affect flights to and from the Arctic islands of Svalbard on Monday.

Britain's Met Office said the ash may reach British airspace later this week but the European air traffic control agency said it was not expected to move further than the western coast of Scotland.

In April 2010, the Eyjafjallajokull eruption prompted aviation officials to close Europe's air space for five days out of fear that the ash could harm jet engines. Thousands of flights were grounded, airlines lost millions of dollars and millions of travelers were stranded, many sleeping on airport floors across northern Europe.

Eurocontrol's models of ash concentration on Monday showed the main plume of ash at heights from 20,000 feet to 35,000 — the normal altitudes for passenger airliners — gradually extending northward from Iceland over the next two days. The cloud is predicted to arch its way north of Scandinavia and possibly touch the islands off the northern Russian coastline within the next two days.

A smaller plume could reach as far as the western coast of Scotland during that period, and the eastern coast of Greenland.

Iceland shut its main airport after Grimsvotn, about 120 miles (200 kilometers) east of Reykjavik, erupted Saturday. The airport remained closed Monday morning, but officials hope to reopen it later in the day.

Neither plume is projected to reach the European mainland. They are also not expected to affect trans-Atlantic flights, whose eastbound and westbound tracks are located further much south of the projected ash dispersal.

"We are not in a position to say as yet as to whether there would be any disruption of European aviation," said Brian Flynn, deputy head of operations. "In any event, we are very confident that if there were to be some disruption it would be at a much smaller scale than that we witnessed last year."

Some airline chiefs complained that regulators had overreacted last year. But a study last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded the shutdown had been justified. It said the hard, sharp particles of volcanic ash blasted high into the air could have caused jet engines to fail and sandblasted airplane windows.

The Eyjafjallajokull eruption was more problematic because a combination of factors — including the ash distribution pattern and unusual weather patterns — conspired last year to make travel difficult. Meteorologists in Iceland and in Britain have more specialist equipment that enables them to measure the density of ash in the atmosphere — the key factor in whether a plane should be grounded.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he did not believe volcanic ash would disrupt air traffic as extensively this time.

"We are better prepared and we'll have far better information and intelligence which allows us then to adjust things without necessarily the blanket bans on flights that we saw last year," he said during a visit to Brussels.

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Meera Selva in London contributed.