Icelandic Volcano – Will eruption affect flights?

Due to its geological location on the edge of two massive tectonic plates, Iceland is no stranger to earthquakes. The recent increase in seismic activity has however been more significant than usual causing much alarm, particularly for the residents Grindavik on the Reykjanes Peninsula at the epicentre of the recent activity and the location of the source of the current angst, the Fagradalsfjall volcano.

At the time of writing, the regular news-streams reporting of imminent eruption have subsided, and the bulletins are certainly not as immediate or catastrophic as they were in mid-November this year.

A quick glance at the current situation however suggests that the danger is still very active with the Icelandic Met Office continuing to warn of the ‘persistent likelihood of an eruption’ – a terrible time of uncertainty for the many people who have been evacuated with no indication of when or if they will be able to return to their homes.


Ash Cloud Impacts

The impacts of a large eruption could have more far-reaching effects and the airline industry particularly is monitoring the situation carefully.  The 2010 eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano created an ash-cloud that caused the closure of most European airspace for a period of 8 days from 15th until the 23rd of April, then intermittently in the following weeks in different European locations.

The ash cloud of 2010 contained glass-rich ash particles, which were caused by the reaction of meltwater flowing back into the erupting volcano. These particles reached a height of 30,000 feet due to the explosive force of the eruption, which fed directly into the jet stream. The direction of the jet stream at the time was unusually stable, continually South-East, i.e., towards mainland Europe and its expansive airspace.

So, taking all these factors into account, it was a ‘perfect storm’ which led to the conditions that caused the most widespread grounding of flights in Europe since the 2nd World War – until the Covid19 pandemic hit 10 years on.

The airline industry is still recovering from the pandemic and other global events and can do without yet more challenges of force majeure.


But is it likely that an eruption of the Fagradalsfjall volcano would cause similar or worse disruption than we saw in 2010?

Not necessarily.

According to the Visit-Iceland website there are currently 46 volcanoes actively erupting around the World without any disruption to international air-travel. Therefore, a volcanic eruption doesn’t inevitably lead to thousands of flight cancelations, unless the conditions similar to the 2010 Eyjafjallajokull eruption are met.

The characteristics of the 2010 and 2023 volcano are different, so although it cannot be ruled out, the broader impact to air travel – and more specifically aircraft engines should not (according to some meteorologists) be as severe as in 2010. The key effect of the 2010 disruption was caused by the meltwater reacting with superheated lava. The meltwater came from the thick glacier that capped the 2010 volcano, and the explosive reaction was similar to pouring cold water on hot oil or hot coals.

The fundamental difference is that the 2023 volcano is not capped by thick ice and is 5000 feet lower than the 2010 volcano. Therefore, volcanic ash should not reach the sufficient altitude to be carried and dispersed thousands of miles over busy flight paths as happened in 2010. That is not to say that there wouldn’t be any flight disruption, particularly around Reykjavik-Keflavik Airport, which is a key connection for flights to the US and Europe.


Dangers to Aircraft

Ash particles have a much lower melting point than aircraft engine materials creating a sticky substance that can clog up turbine blades and other critical parts. Ash can also contaminate fuel, scratch windows, and damage electrical systems. Furthermore, ash clouds are not easy to avoid as they are invisible at night and are not detected by weather radar on commercial flights.

Since 2010, the CAA, in conjunction with engine manufacturers have implemented a limit on how much ash they consider acceptable for an engine to safely ingest. This should help mitigate any potential disruption but will ultimately depend on the nature of the anticipated eruption.

Having just looked at the latest update from the Icelandic Met Office, ‘the unrest is still not over’. This will come as little comfort to those evacuated from their homes, local businesses, and the international airline industry.