Grounded: Iceland volcano turns Europe into a no-fly zone. Now what?

As you might have heard on the news this week, a volcano in Iceland has been erupting and it’s having some effects much further afield than most people tend to think. This volcano happens to be located under a glacial ice cap (the Eyjafjallajökull glacier, to be precise). That turns out to be a real problem because the melting ice causes the erupting magma to cool rapidly with explosive results putting a tremendous amount of ash into the air. Volcanic ash is a serious problem for all manner of devices including, unfortunately, jet engines. While a modern jet can operate in a driving rain all day, volcanic grit will absolutely cause a failure and in short order. That’s cause the airlines and air control agencies to ground flights in and out of large parts of Europe for the past couple of days.

A lingering volcanic ash plume forced extended no-fly restrictions over much of Europe Saturday, as Icelandic scientists warned that volcanic activity had increased and showed no sign of abating — a portent of more travel chaos to come.

Although the ash plume has grown, a northerly wind was expected to allow enough visibility for scientists to fly over the volcano Saturday. Scientists want to see how much ice has melted to determine how much longer the eruption could spew ash. Because the volcano is situated below a glacial ice cap, the magma is being cooled quickly, causing explosions and plumes of grit that can be catastrophic to plane engines if prevailing winds are right.

Britain, Germany, France, Belgium and Switzerland have all extended their airspace closures until later tonight, at least, with some other countries already extending them into tomorrow.

Making matters worse is the fact that, unlike inclement weather, there’s very little ability to predict how long this will go on. This same volcano erupted in 1821 and did so for a year. In Hawaii, Kilauea has been erupting continuously since 1983. Most of us are used to flight cancellations and airport closures, but the conditions that cause those things are usually gone within a couple of days at most. This event could wind up interdicting air travel in a wide region of heavily populated areas for weeks or months.

The question that came to my mind this morning when I read this story was, “What if this situation persists for 6 months to a year?” We have become very dependent on air travel, particularly in this country. The fact is I can schedule an afternoon meeting in Los Angeles, leave my home near DC in the morning and be reasonably sure I can make that meeting. That very trip used to take 4 months. Even today if I have to make that trip without air travel it would take days. Europe, at least, has a well developed rail system and is already running plentiful and regular passenger travel on it. In America, we have no such system in place. Amktrak is really the only passenger service and its schedule is, frankly, abysmal except in the northeast corridor. I realize that an erupting volcano isn’t exactly a common event and I’m not suggesting a Manhattan Project type of endeavor to deploy rail everywhere. But I do have to wonder: what if it happened here?