How The Icelandic Grimsvotn Volcanic Eruption Could Affect Aviation

Seismologists are warning that Iceland’s Iceland’s Grimsvotn volcano could soon experience a massive eruption in the near future. Unfortunately, given Iceland’s location between North America and continental Europe, an eruption would have a significant impact on transatlantic traffic, disrupting an already fragile system.

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Icelandair would be disproportionately affected by any volcanic eruption. However, the situation would affect both European and North American airlines conducting transatlantic operations. Photo: Icelandair

A warning from Icelandic seismologists

The warning of the rising threat comes from the Icelandic Met Office (IMO), which says that the seismic activity at the Grímsvötn volcano has been increasing during the past month. In fact, it is showing multiple indications that a massive eruption could soon take place. The volcano’s last major incident was in 2011 when a massive and unusually powerful eruption ejected ash 20km into the air.

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Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull eruptions led to significant changes in volcano ash safety and regulation. Photo: Boaworm via Wikimedia 

The warning signs

According to Yahoo News, the Aviation Colour Code for the volcano was raised to yellow from green on October 1st. According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), a code yellow is the second-lowest warning level and is defined as a “Volcano is exhibiting signs of elevated unrest above known background activity.”

Scientists say that concern stems from ground deformation that is exceeding the levels seen before the volcano’s 2011 eruption, which itself caused Icelandic airspace to close and 900 flights to be canceled.

eTurbo News notes that the volcano has recently been observed “inflating” as new magma enters the chambers beneath it once again. The resulting increased thermal activity has melted more ice. Furthermore, localized earthquake activity has increased.

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Geographically speaking, Iceland is reasonably central for transatlantic air travel. Photo: Icelandair

How aviation would be affected

It’s been just over ten years since the volcanic eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland. This incident caused European airspace to come to a standstill with nearly all flights in Europe and across the Atlantic Ocean suspended for almost a week. This was due to the vast amounts of ash from the eruption of the volcano thrown high into the air – a severe hazard for aircraft engines.

Because volcanic ash is made up of tiny particles of rock, it has an intensely abrasive effect on aircraft. This means it can destroy the outer surface of the aircraft’s fuselage, which can be especially bad news for the wings.

Another vulnerable part of the aircraft is the windshield, which can quickly become obscured or even shattered by airborne ash.

However, the most vulnerable part of a plane flying through a cloud of volcanic ash is its engines. When hot volcanic ash enters a jet engine, it heats up, resulting in ash melting and sticking together as clumps of molten material. This can quickly cool, solidify and destroy an engine, rendering it completely inoperational, and leaving the aircraft without power.

It goes without saying that the aviation industry is already in a fragile state due to the global health crisis. While there may not be as many passengers traveling these days, the aircraft still flying are carrying precious cargo with significant economic importance.

Many airlines – and global economies – have already been hard hit by this year’s events. A volcanic eruption leading to a total shutdown of transatlantic aviation would have adversely impact economies on both sides of the Atlantic – even if it lasts for only a week.

We’ll just have to wait and keep an eye on Grimsvotn. It’s undoubtedly the last thing we need to happen in 2020.

What are your thoughts? Let us know what you think in the comment section.