The Cloud That Closed A Continent

A volcano erupted in Iceland, and air travel in Europe ground to a halt — one more reminder of how vulnerable our world remains

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Rakel Osk Sigurda / NordicPhotos / Getty Images

Horses are herded to safety away from volcanic ash April 17, 2010 near Eyjafjallajokull, Iceland.

As volcanic eruptions go, Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull won't break the records. Icelanders dismiss the normally sleepy Eyjafjallajokull as a "weary old man," and in fact few people outside the volcanology community — or the 800 or so Icelandic farmers who needed to be evacuated — noticed when the volcano began spewing lava on March 20. Most likely it would have remained that way — a brief tourist attraction and a footnote in a few grad students' dissertations — before the earth quieted again.

But that's not quite what happened. Instead, on April 14, a new and stronger eruption on Eyjafjallajokull exploded through a glacial ice cap, throwing a vast plume of volcanic ash around 7 miles (11 km) into the atmosphere, high enough to be carried for thousands of miles. And then, as if on cue, the winds shifted, blowing to the east and south, sending the tower of ash toward northern Europe and some of the most crowded airspace on the planet. "It was an eruption at the right place at the right time," says Marcus Bursik, a volcanologist at the University at Buffalo. "Or, I guess, really, the other way around."

Indeed, for anyone attempting to travel to, from or within Europe — or anyone who owns stock in an airline — it was definitely the wrong place at the wrong time. Because volcanic ash can ruin the jet engines of aircraft, European air-traffic controllers began shutting down the continent's airspace as the high-altitude cloud loomed. By April 15, planes were grounded and the skies above Europe's cities were eerily quiet. As the cloud metastasized across the continent, nervous bureaucrats kept much of its airspace closed for almost five days, resulting in the cancellation of more than 100,000 flights and the stranding of hundreds of thousands of travelers in airports around the world. With a third of the industry down, it was the worst global travel disruption since World War II, as the lifeline we'd all come to take for granted was suddenly snapped. "These are extraordinary circumstances beyond all airlines' control," says Willie Walsh, CEO of British Airways, which was losing up to $30 million a day during the shutdown.

But the impact of the volcanic crisis went far beyond the inconvenience of stranded vacationers and the sprained tongues of newscasters trying to pronounce Eyjafjallajokull. (For the record, it's Ey-ya-fyat-lah-yoh-kuht.) The airline industry, already pummeled by the recession, has lost nearly $2 billion. TUI Travel, Europe's biggest tour operator, had 100,000 customers marooned overseas and was losing $9 million a day as it scrambled to get them home. Kenyan farmers, who supply one-third of Europe's fresh flowers, were losing $2 million a day as their blooms withered on Nairobi runways. Transplants of bone marrow — which needs to be implanted within 72 hours of harvesting, or else the cells will die — were delayed, putting cancer patients' lives at risk. Hundreds of runners from overseas were unable to make it to the starting line of the Boston Marathon on April 19, including Moroccan Olympian Abdellah Falil, who was stuck in Paris. Oxford University bigwigs, in New York for a biannual outreach weekend, wondered how to get back home for the summer term, and world leaders couldn't fly to Poland for the funeral of Polish President Lech Kaczynski on April 18. "It's nature," says Joy Martinez, 29, a New Yorker who shifted her wedding at the last minute from France to Bali because of the volcano. "And you can't fight nature."

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