A jetliner, heading from Washington’s Dulles Airport to London’s Heathrow, passes over the island of Iceland. On the port side of the plane is the remarkable specter of the Eyjafjallajökull Volcano, displaying nature’s greatest show of violence a full volcanic eruption. As the passengers crowd around the tiny acrylic portals, the cockpit receives navigation assistance, instructing them to make adjustments to their course.
The plume of ash rising from below contains 250 million cubic meters (330 million cubic yards) of powdered debris. Its height is level with the Airbus A330, some 9 km above sea level, and is spread as far forward as can be seen from the tiny passenger windows – and from the cockpit panorama as well.
This is quite impressive for a mountain that stands only 1666 m (5466 ft) high. But just how impressive is only now making itself known as the instructions from the air traffic controllers at Reykjavik-Keflavik International Airport begin to reveal. The power of the eruption, beginning its second phase in April 2010, will rate on the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) as a large, level four event.
When the ash plume rose into the sky, its particulate matter reached the North Atlantic Jet Stream which positioned over Iceland. From there the high altitude winds carried the cloud nearly 2500 miles to the south east. Jet stream winds vary in speeds from 30 to 240 mph (50 to 400 km/hr) and often meander across a relatively wide area.
The cloud spread in an elongated quadrilateral from its apex in Iceland to its base, going from Iceland to Ireland to Germany and north over the length of Norway, closing airports all over the north of Europe. Aircraft are being diverted to any place which can be reached within their fuel range. This particular airbus is directed to Madrid.
Such volcanic events are quite common to Iceland. The island lies astride the Mid Atlantic Ridge. One portion of it lies on the North American Tectonic Plate and the other portion on the European Plate. As the two plates shift, magma from the Earth’s interior is released to the surface, like ooze from a deep flesh wound. On the surface it flows as lava to the sea. Sometimes, the movements pressurize magma in chambers. As the pressure continues to rise it eventually releases as explosion, ejecting the content out far beyond the island.
The massive forces at work under Iceland are not all bad news, however. Geo-engineers have studied the workings of the geology in and around Iceland and have been able to tap this energy for human benefit. In 2004, Iceland’s geothermal power supplied more than half of the Iceland’s total energy needs.
Iceland’s geothermal opportunities are of such quality that the government has initiated an energy plan to make Iceland fossil fuel free by 2050. This would put them alongside Denmark, Finland, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Indeed, by 2076, most of the industrialized world plans to be free of the use of fossil fuels.
For more information see “Iceland Launches Energy Revolution” and “Iceland volcano: First came the floods, then the smell of rotten eggs.”