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How the land of fire and ice brought Europe to standstill

By Bashdar Ismaeel - posted Wednesday, 28 April 2010

With a technologically wondrous world encapsulating our modern society, I often marvel at how people coped with the much more limited and strenuous forms of communication and travel in the past era.

Often travel between two cities even in a small region could prove a tiresome trek, taking literally days if not weeks and much effort. However, with the advent of technology, the world has become exponentially smaller. Nowadays, an incident on one side of the world can cause public stir on the other side within minutes. Or within a matter of hours we can reach new lands, continents and horizons.

However, my natural wonder and inquisitiveness was about to take a turn for the worse. On Thursday, April 15, packed, excited, suited, booted, and ready to leave the front door, I got a call that I thought was a prank. "All flights have been cancelled" exclaimed my sister! I merely brushed it off, and just said very funny. I have a flight to catch and I don't have time for jokes! However, little did I know that the joke was on me!


My sister called again, and this time with more seriousness and firmness in her voice. The grin on my face quickly evaporated. As I immediately checked the news, it become apparent that a volcanic eruption in Iceland had caused such a colossal amount of ash to drift across the UK that the aviation authorities had no choice but to place a blanket ban on all flights.

I somehow felt unlucky. My flight was a mere 45-minutes after the blanket ban came into affect. However, as the immense consequences of that ban soon unravelled, a sense of relief and "luckiness" quickly sunk in. I hadn't left the house, and unlike hundreds of thousands of others, I did not find myself stranded beyond despair and out of pocket.

I now had the not-so-joyous task of calling my friend to advise that my eagerly awaited trip would not be going ahead. "All flights have been cancelled," I sympathetically explained. However, to her it probably just felt like a bad excuse or at worse a not-so-funny joke. When she checked the news, she was just as startled. After all, the idea of needing to completely close airspace across all of the UK and much of northern Europe seemed surreal if not a touch apocalyptic. This wasn't due to a war or a global catastrophe-no, this was due to a cloud. Well, an ash cloud, to be precise.

While it may seem unreal to most, this was an evident and unprecedented reality that cost the combined economies almost $2 billion dollars and brought Europe to a virtual standstill. It left thousands of families, holiday makers, and various passengers stuck en route and with few options.

What was hoped to be a short-term measure dragged on for close to six painful days as European governments came under fierce pressure from various sides. What danger could be so great that it left the authorities with no choice but to issue a total ban on all flights?

This question become more painstaking in the minds of thousands of stranded passengers by the hour. For many, it became an unwanted and unplanned adventure as they sought whatever route they could to go home. Ferries, trains, and other means of transport saw manic demand. Some people literally paid thousands of pounds and took days to get to their final destinations.


With the ashes from the volcano dominating news for almost a week, the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland-the source of the wide-scale discomfort and the dangerous ash plumes that covered European skies, which scientists feared could damage jet engines-became common knowledge.
As brutally as Eyjafjallajokull resonated and as devastating as its affects on civilisation, it was not the most explosive of volcanoes. However, never in European history has a single volcano had such far-reaching influence on inhabitants.

Iceland, a small island north of the UK, straddles two tectonic plates; as a result, it is home to a number of volcanoes that have made the place a land of potential fire and combustion.

The eruption resulted in tons of ash being released in the air to heights of 35,000 feet. The fine, abrasive particles that form the ash cloud include tiny amounts of rock, glass, and sand that can melt to form glassy deposits upon impact with jet engine instruments that operate at searing heats, resulting in clogging of fuels and eroding of vital metals. In fact, in theory much of the machinery and components of a plane can be affected.

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About the Author

Bashdar Pusho Ismaeel is a London-based freelance writer and analyst, whose primary focus and expertise is on the Kurds, Iraq and Middle Eastern current affairs. The main focus of his writing is to promote peace, justice and increase awareness of the diversity, suffering and at times explosive mix in Iraq and the Middle East.

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