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Iceland's Volcanic Disruption

A passenger reads a Spanish newspaper showing a picture on the front page of the Icelandic volcano eruption, as he waits at Bilbao airport, April 18, 2010. The airport was closed due to a cloud of volcanic ash emanating from a volcanic eruption in Iceland. (AP)

Some planes are back in the skies, but it could days, even weeks, before air travel is back to normal in Europe and beyond.

Iceland’s ash cloud has stranded millions of passengers. Six days on, their frustration is sky-high.  

Airline losses are climbing — just going up and up. The British Navy is sending in rescue ships. NATO planes are flying safety checks.  

The volcano at the center of it all is now bubbling with lava and throwing up chunks of molten rock. And it could trigger other volcanic eruptions.

This Hour, On Point:  The global impact of tiny Iceland’s volcano.


Robert Wright, transport correspondent for the Financial Times.

Alan Levin, aviation and transportation correspondent for USA Today.

Richard Wunderman, volcanologist with the Smithsonian Institution’s Global Volcanism Program.  He is managing editor of the “Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network,” and he sits on a working group for volcanic ash and aviation safety.

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  • wavre

    The GODS of Iceland are fighting back!
    Bullied by Great-Britain about fishing rights and monetary policies, Then finally,their economy taken to the cleaners and ruined by Wall Street’s scams.Capitalistic western world had it coming! Poetic justice?:)

  • joshua

    What are the conditions like in Iceland? Is the air quality bad, murky? How will it affect the water, and the soil, etc.? Will the health of Icelanders decline in some way? How will it affect wildlife? Do people need to be evacuated, or is completely isolated form communities?

    is it a bad time to travel to Iceland, to live in Iceland?

    How long will the eruption, the smoke, etc. disrupt Icelandic communities (visibly,in health terms)?

    how does this affect the global environment?

    is there a connection with this and the ring of fire earthquakes?

  • joshua

    Please focus on Iceland and not the economy of Europe etc.

  • joshua

    Aviation, aviation, aviation–business as usual. Boring. I guess the economy is the only thing that matters. We are such a warped society. take a train, use the Internet–air transport isn’t everything. give me a choice and I will never take a plane again. There a bigger things to discuss than the bottom line of aviation.

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    @Joshua, I think you need to get out a bit more. There are tens of thousands of people stuck in various places they were visiting. If one of them was you you might have a different view of this. One can’t take a train from the UK to the US (yet).

    This segment from last night’s Newhour makes clear how this event is rippling through not just aviation business but other businesses that depend on air freight:


    It’s easy to sit at home and pass judgement on this but being stranded for a week or more in a foreign country when you have to be home for work or to water the plants is incredibly frustrating (and expensive).

  • Gary

    The media is annoying me with what is perhaps just a fine nuance of language, but I feel it needs to be pointed out. The sole framing of this issue as per the airlines, is that they are LOSING money due to this volcano. This is a NATURAL EVENT, accept the conditions and stop whining about your business…or are they making the case for another taxpayer bailout?

    By this logic I could whine that I am losing 20 million per week because I’m not Bill Gates…so I should blame Bill Gates?

  • joshua

    To RICHARD–I am in china. i travel extensively. i know how it effects business, but sometimes we need to slow down. Business is not everything. My point was that this show will surely be all about the economy-end of this, but what of the environment, what of Iceland?-i doubt very much they intended to discuss any of that-these are things I’m curious about.

    It’s obvious the economy has been disrupted. What else do you need to know about that?

    I want to know more about how THE ERUPTION impacts the environment of Iceland and the immediate area, as well as globally.

    I have waited for many trains, ships, an planes–I don’t get upset when I have to wait. i appreciate my surroundings and people. I’m a people watcher. i like train stations and airports for the feeling it gives me, in transit–I don’t worry my pretty little head over such small things in life. Especially now in business you can do almost anything over the wire, in virtual reality.

    I get out every day–i just got home from a long trek on my bike through the China mountainside in the rain.

    so please do not put me in your little pigeon hole–this brainwashing stereotype of the typical blogger. I see your comments here often enough as well. Does blogging encapsulate you? perhaps you, we, these people at NPR under the thumb of corporate interests, or foundations, whatever…could ask a few more questions from a different perspective other than the economy. I listen to those programs as well-I comment on the economy, and Sachs and I’m interested in business dynamics but why must twist everything into the economy?

    I haven’t seen one article ask about how Iceland is being affected? Why? Why do we always have to look through the lens of money and money changers?

  • joshua

    Richard–”stuck” in places they were visiting. Stuck? Why did they go if they feel stuck. Dip back out, slow down, take in what you missed.

  • joshua

    Thanks for responding to me anyway Richard–i do enjoy the banter.

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    Joshua: There are many ways to look at this story and as a traveler I’m surprised you don’t feel more empathy for people stuck in various places.

    I haven’t put you in a pigeon hole, just responded to your posts above.

    I too have waited and continue to wait for many planes and while it does help to remain calm and flow, not everyone in the world can muster up that kind of attitude. When you multiply that times the thousands who are stuck, I think that’s a story and obviously others do too.

    Many people, for one reason or another haven’t thought about how fragile certain sectors of the economy are: like the flower business or the fresh food business. It’s not just about stranded passengers or airlines losing money, it’s also about businesses that depend on air freight. I think that’s a story and worth reporting about and I’m glad onPoint is covering it.

    My guess is as more stories come out of Iceland they’ll be covered too.


  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    Another related story:

    Stranded Travelers Turn to Videoconferencing


  • Michael Drew

    joshua – you’re an odd duck, my friend.

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    This is a fascinating post, well worth reading:

    What if Europe became plane free


  • jeffe

    What struck me is how some people who were stuck in Heathrow were from other areas in Britain that was assessable by train. On man was professor from Edinburgh which is about a 6 hour train trip. He was waiting.
    Another couple were from Belfast which would have been a trek, but it would have meant getting to the north somehow and taking a ferry to Belfast. This was at the beginning of the week. Now the ridership on trains is booming as people are getting tired of waiting.

    It is amazing how this event shut down the airspace over much of Europe for a week. Amazing.

  • Gary
  • Jebbó

    Update from Iceland:

    1. So far, Reykjavík has not seen a speck of ash. That means that around 2/3 of the population of Iceland has not been affected. Yet. The shifting winds in the next days means we may see some ash fallout here.

    2. The main victims so far have been the farmers whose farms are in the shadow of Eyjafjallajökull (Island-Mountain-Glacier is the literal translation, for those who want an easier name to pronounce). This southern seacoast had been one of the prettier, more pastoral areas of the country and now it is covered in half a foot of brown powdery ash. Their cattle have now been sent to the slaughterhouse and their sheep and horses are being trucked out to graze elsewhere. Many of those farms will close, as it could take a decade or more before the area is green again.

    3. The media isn’t making a big deal of this yet, but this volcano and associated disruptions could continue for months or years. In 1821, it erupted for more than a year.

    4. The Icelandic economy is very much on the ropes since the banking crisis of 2008 took the legs out from under the country. I hope that tourism, one of the best sources of cash for Iceland, does not dry up in the wake of this eruption. That would be a shame. Iceland is a beautiful land with friendly people and amazing hot-springs swimming pools in every town. Reykjavík is the closest European capital to the East Coast, and the most interesting place one can get to via direct flight from Boston. So come see us.


  • pw

    Of course, I’m not sitting at Heathrow or Barajas, waiting and waiting. But the reminder that our lives and our schedules are subject to unknowns is probably a good thing now and then. Admittedly, my heart sank when I heard about what this was doing to food suppliers in Africa — farmers whose economies are on the edge, at best.

  • Todd

    Greatest danger posed by Icelandic volcano: tongue cramp from pronouncing its name…Eyjafjallajökull.

  • Sheryl

    My April 15th vacation to Tunisia was volcanoed. I flew from Boston to NYC on April 15th expecting to fly to Paris then Tunisa. Upon arriving in NYC, the Air France flight was already canceled. On Air France’s dime, many travelers were put up in the Brooklyn Marriott with dinner and breakfast included. I was able to book a 6:00 pm flight to Paris on 4/16.

    On 4/16 at 11:00 am, we were put on a bus to the airport. Air France forced the buses back to the Marriott. We had no rooms and no idea what the delay was, so we all stood out side waiting. At 1:00 pm, we back on the bus heading to the airport. By 3:00 pm the flight was canceled.

    I am booked on a 4/23 flight, but the tour I was going on will be almost over by that point. I flew back to Boston.

    Considering the difficulties others are experiencing, I consider myself lucky.

  • Halldór Laxness

    “tiny Iceland”

    Jane just referred to Iceland as “tiny Iceland”. It may be small in population, but the country itself is bigger than Ireland – and about the size of New England without the wilds of Maine. So while it’s no Texas it’s no Martha’s Vineyard either.

    I’d like to helicopter Jane into the middle of the vast, impassable, barren high desert at the middle of the country and see how tiny she thought it was!

  • http://stogtac.com jochen

    There is one group of people who seem to be overlooked albeit all philosophical considerations: Thousands of people stranded in transit and not being allowed to leave the respective airport, because they have no visas for the specific countries.

  • EIO Boston

    We do not need the airline industry jsut like we need the banks. Looping in the fact that airlines ferry troops is manipulation. The airlines do not ferry the troops for free. They should use their profits to tide themselves over. My firm will not be bailed out because we need the products for new born babies. If we go belly up some other firm will do it. If one airline goes belly up it will provide opportunities for someone who still has his/her cash to start a new one with the support of the plane makers.

  • Edith

    Please ask the geologist about this. When Krakatoa erupted I understand that the global temperature cooled for some time afterwards. Forgive me for not having the exact length of time the effect was noted, or by how man degrees. I heard about this on a Living on Earth program in which scientists were considering engineering ways to combat global warming. Could we see a cooling trend after this eruption? Just curious. That could be something positive about this.

  • Todd

    At the risk of departing from a conversation being monopolized by the aviation topic, here’s an AP excerpt which mentions how volcanic ash is affecting Icelandic farmers:

    “In Iceland, winds dragged the ashes over new farmland, to the southwest of the glacier, causing farmers to scramble to secure their cattle and board up windows.

    With the sky blackened and the wind driving a fine, sticky dust, dairy farmer Berglind Hilmarsdottir teamed up with neighbors to round her animals and get them to shelter. The ash is toxic – the fluoride causes long-term bone damage that makes teeth fall out and bones break.

    “This is bad. There are no words for it,” said Hilmarsdottir, whose pastures near the town of Skogar were already covered in a gray paste of ash.”

  • Todd

    “I’d like to helicopter Jane into the middle of the vast, impassable, barren high desert at the middle of the country and see how tiny she thought it was!”
    Posted by Halldór Laxness

    I’ll chip in for her airfare, as long as the ash is still spewing! ;)

  • Anil Sodhy

    Tom, Asian volcanoes, particularly in Indonesia and the Philippines, have been erupting periodically for decades. Do your guests have any idea as to why the airspace in the path of those ash clouds has not been closed whenever those volcanoes have erupted?

  • Gary

    The safety of the passengers and crew are not important, its the profits that are important…the war profits will suffer if air travel is slowed. Can’t ship cargo get taxpayer bailouts to make up the difference in revenue.

    I was going to start a multi-billion dollar business that employed 200,000 people, but I could not get the business running on thought alone…but I digress, there was something that went wrong…I will say it was… was… The St. Helens volcano, yes that’s it!

    The dust gave me a headache…and now I want my bailout to replace the billions that I WOULD HAVE made from my very successful business.


  • BHA

    As the guest just mentioned, the nearly catastrophic events were many years back and with planes flying through much more dense ash clouds. The crew of the 747 flying from Malaysia to Perth didn’t know there was a volcanic eruption, were flying at night and their flight path was directly into the cloud MUCH closer to the volcano than most of the transatlantic flights so the ash cloud was much more dense. They made good decisions that allowed them to restart the engines and land in Jakarta but not because they knew they had an ash problem. Shows how well prepared the crew was for ‘events’.

    Current knowledge allows for ‘what to do if you fly into a volcanic ash cloud’ and what flying ‘indicators’ would let the crew know they might have an issue.

    I’m glad they are being cautious, but more needs to be done with regard to checking the air in the ‘corridors’.

    Has anyone sent up weather balloons with instruments to check for ash and its content?

  • John

    Jane isn’t as bad as she used to be. I do wish that the would rotate the guest hosts more.

  • Joe Kesselman

    I’m still confused by one thing. Last time I read the fine print of an airline ticket, the airline was only responsible for a best-effort attempt to get you (or your packages, in the case of cargo) to the destination, with their liability being limited to the cost of airfare. If a passenger or company wanted protection from events outside the airline’s control — specifically including weather conditions and other acts of god — it was their responsibility, not the airline’s, to purchase appropriate insurance. (There are, or were, kiosks in every airport which will be delighted to sell you this coverage at a fairly reasonable price.)

    Yes, airlines have often gone beyond that requirement as a courtesy to the customers and an investment in public relations. But I don’t believe they are under any requirement to do so.

    So unless the legal statements on the tickets or airbills have changed drastically, I fail to see why the airlines — or the governments which may have interests in the airlines — should be financially responsible for any of the current disruption. They may have to return a large pile of money to customers, and certainly that will affect both their immediate cashflow and their profitability for the year. And it may cause some travellers/shippers to reconsider whether airplanes are always the best solution. But I really can’t see why everyone is assuming that the impact on the airline industry will be greater than that.

    Maybe it’s time to stop complaining when our flight is a few minutes late, and realize that it’s fairly impressive that the schedules run as reliably as they do.

  • Joe Kesselman

    (And before anyone asks: No, I have no conflict of interest; I’m strictly an air customer. I’m just fed up with our society’s assumption that the first response to any disappointment should be litigation. People and companies should take *some* responsibility for themselves…)

  • BHA

    “So unless the legal statements on the tickets or airbills have changed drastically, I fail to see why the airlines — or the governments which may have interests in the airlines — should be financially responsible for any of the current disruption.”

    Joe, I believe the law in Europe is that the airlines must refund. Not quite the here! My daughter’s Theatre on Ice team is supposed to fly to France tomorrow evening for a competition this weekend. The coaches were going out yesterday and were canceled. The US Air ‘remedy’ is a ticket that can be used in the next 2 weeks. Pretty useless really given the event will be over before anyone could likely book a flight even if things open up 100% in the next couple of days. I’m sure there aren’t a lot of empty seats on anything headed to Europe in the near future. The team is flying Air France out of Montreal so if they can’t go, they should be refunded.

  • IMHO Spokane

    I do understand the desire to resume air travel and get stranded passengers home, but I find the decision to raise the tolerable ash threshold and resume flights without further testing disturbing. Are airplanes exposed to ash going to be tracked somehow?

    Surely flight crews and passengers choosing to fly over the next few days are making an informed . But the abrasive nature of the ash and the fact that it can melt and coat engine parts would seem to expose these aircraft to more wear and tear and a potentially higher failure rate.

    I have no doubt (or at least high hopes) that the airlines would be on high alert looking for such damage and wear, but I suspect that the ash will have far more impact than they might originally assume. For instance, small amounts of abrasive ash dust might settle in places that could cause additional wear on the insulation of tightly-packed electrical wires.

    Sending the planes up prematurely will definitely make me think twice about flying on planes that might have been exposed long after the dust settles.

  • Liz B.

    The stranded passengers should be helped out by being provided low-cost meals, water and lodging. It’s no fun to be stranded anywhere especially if it’s unknown when you can continue your travel.
    We need to show more sympathy towards travelers.

    The big corporations, on the other hand, will recover, but safety should come first. As described in the program, volcanic ash can damage aircraft engines potentially leading to accidents and disasters.

  • joshua

    Michel Drew–u say I’m an odd duck. I’m not a duck. ducks don’t use computers. if you ever read the story of the ugly duckling–he turns into a swan.

    I’m odd because I want to hear about the affects on Iceland rather than rich Europeans? Ok–if that makes me odd–thank you for the compliment.

    All you have to say is how odd I am? Do you have any other thoughts? I suppose it’s better to be normal, ordinary, dull, boring, uninteresting, uninterested, un-thinking, and just conform.

    I found Jebbe’s comment very enlightening–about the ash and the cattle. Thank you.

  • joshua

    Richard:”There are many ways to look at this story and as a traveler I’m surprised you don’t feel more empathy for people stuck in various places.”

    Travelers expect that things will not go their way–u can’t control the world, or nature. Visiting a place for a week or two is not traveling. And business is not traveling. Very few business men experience anything at all. i’m always amazed by the “travelers’ I see, especially American who come to strange places and immediately seek out the familiar–the American–like McDonald’s, or KFC,or Walmart, refusing to indulge, even experiment with the culture they are visiting. Just stay home–save fuel, and the environment.

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    “Very few business men experience anything at all.”

    I did business travel for twenty years and saw quite a bit of the world. I can assure you that during that time I never ate at American fast food restaurants. I’m sure there are some businesspeople who fit your stereotype but I’m not one of them. Who’s doing the pigeonholing now?

    “Visiting a place for a week or two is not traveling.”

    Oh? What is it then?

  • cory

    How fragile we are.

  • Steve V

    “How fragile we are” – Good comment Cory – perhaps this is a glimpse into the future when our oil demands exceed our resources.

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    “How fragile we are.”

    Anyone who loses power or cable/DSL every once in a while gets a nice kick in the pants/wake up call about how we take these things for granted.

    Even simpler lifestyles have fragility but we have so many connected layers of dependencies we’re a long way from simpler lifestyles.

  • justanother

    I fully support the whole world to slow down. We are spinning out of control. When mother nature strikes, we are busy to calculate numbers, profit and loss. Joshua is right about not everything is about economy, if we focus everything on it, we can be very vulnerable. But I do agree with other comments about helping those travelers to cope, this is no difference that any other disaster strikes. Things like providing folding beds, water, and basic foods. Airport should start building more sleeping pods like YOTEL, fast and convenient.

  • justanother

    The more we build, the more we have, the more burden and responsibilities we bear, the more we are vulnerable emotionally, Only when we live a self sustainable life style, we take loss at more ease.

    I used to hear the old and wise people say that, I thought these are just rhetoric, but now I truly understand the essence of simple life.

  • Tim


    That last guest was morose. Don’t despair! The world may yet not end, but rather move thoroughly past this media morbidity. Yes, you’re right–the nukes are coming, the nukes are coming; I want to believe however that no matter how diminished, the might of the light will prevail in the final analysis. Here’s to Hope.

  • Daniel Barnet

    I have heard a lot about the recent volcano eruption in Iceland and the subsequent economic impact that had globally, heard on NPR and in other media outlets but I have heard nothing at all that details the overall environmental impact, both in terms of the amount of carbon emissions that were not released into the environment by the 100,000 planes that never took off and also how volcanic eruptions generally affect the environment.

    I think this would be a very interesting question to address and I would love to know if you touch on this topic at all. Thank you!

  • joshua

    With all the fuss about the pain aviation feels–there are good ways to look at this-the alternative means of transport are booming–taxis, trains, buses, ferries–that’s revenue, that somebody’s livelihood. This is a good thing. Hotels are booming too. Restaurants have more customers. I read Jon Cleese, of Monty Python and Faulty Towers paid over 3000 pounds for taxi from Paris, i think–that taxi driver is one happy guy–and perhaps his family is celebrating as well. I have no sympathy for the airlines.

    No, there should not be gov. support–let the airlines pay for it. Nobody is paying my bills. business is a risk.

  • joshua

    There are few things that should be subsidized–like sustainable buildings, green roofs, trains, buses, ferries…aviation is not one of them.

  • justanother

    joshua, you seem to have more problem with aviation than other transportation?

  • joshua

    Thank you Jane for asking the Vulcanologist about the environmental impact and health.

    Despite some vague criticism i see here for your service, I think you have the nicest, prettiest voice on the air–it’s easy to listen to, soft and sophisticated. At the risk of sounding like a misogynist, most woman-folk voices on the air are harsh and piercing–I always turn down the radio. But I like listening to you. You are the only women in broadcasting that I can listen to.

  • joshua

    justanother: “joshua, you seem to have more problem with aviation than other transportation?”

    Yeah. Aviation is highly toxic to the environment, and when traveling you can’t see anything, and you don’t experience anything along the way. traveling is about the journey, as much as it is about the destination.

    Airlines pay pilots very little money. They are treated as expendable digits. pilots have a highly-sophisticated skill and expensive education, but are rarely compensated. These days they are little more than bus drivers–not to say there’s anything wrong with bus drivers–i would drive a bus (it must be stressful being a bus driver) but I think you get what I mean.

    If flying was green, I would like it more, but I would still choose a ship or a sailboat. i wish global transit would shift back to green blue-water ships–it could be quite the experience. The ships would be equipped with the latest business needs and comfort, as well as a relaxing atmosphere. In my fleet, it would be less like a touristy cruise-ship today, and more like a home, vacation, adventure, library, cafe university kind of experience (the possibilities are endless). it takes roughly six days to cross the Atlantic going at a fairly high-speed. A green ship might be slower, but in the transit one would have every opportunity to connect to business partners via up links, etc., and pleasure cruisers would experience the joy of going from place to place (America to Europe) and feeling as if they made a journey, in style, rather than teleporting in economy class or first class stale highly infectious air. With the right business plan and demand it could be made even more affordable than flying. And a new industry will be born with many new jobs. And a huge part of atmospheric pollution will be eliminated. people will slow down and enjoy travel,rather than being stuffed in boxes and shuffled around in a frantic hurry–that’s not fun to me. take a deep breath, open the eyes…

    Actually, i just want to know more about the impact the eruption will have on Iceland, in detail. I find that as interesting, and more interesting than the aviation economy which is focused on more than it should be–that the economy will be a little disrupted seems a bit obvious to me–but what they fail to point out is that many other areas of the economy benefit in some way. And I resent that trains are not subsidized in America, and that America is obsessed with cars and aviation. I think it’s sad. Even China is way ahead of us when it comes to super-trains.

  • joshua

    i think one of the callers made a great point–the public is constantly asked to bailout these wealthy institutions but never really see any of the benefit at the cost of the environment, health, lifestyle, war and peace… and yet the average person cannot afford a plane ticket anywhere.

  • Michael Drew

    Fair enough, joshua. You’re an odd person.

  • justanother

    *** Despite some vague criticism i see here for your service, I think you have the nicest, prettiest voice on the air–it’s easy to listen to, soft and sophisticated. At the risk of sounding like a misogynist, most woman-folk voices on the air are harsh and piercing–I always turn down the radio. But I like listening to you. You are the only women in broadcasting that I can listen to. ****

    Joshua, I feel the same way, I like her voice and her style of interview. Tom find a real good substitute, very smooth transition between him and her.

  • justanother


    I’m not knowledgeable enough to know the real negative impact on environment among different transportations. But I imagine big ship are powered by dirty fuel, although they are more efficient in terms of per ton of freight moved, so they contribute less green house gas emission. But I’m not sure how much pollution impact on marine environment.

    Not only Airline companies don’t pay pilots well, from what I heard, they hired those inexperienced and unqualified pilots to fly big jets, that way they can keep the payroll cost down. I always wonder if I have extra money as an individual, I will save them for unexpected emergency use, doesn’t a company have that kind of safety net? They seemed to only accept profit, they don’t have any room to take loss anymore, and we all have to hear them whine, or we bail them out.

    I don’t understand why an economy model has to have a stock market? Shouldn’t we have an alternative economy model?

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