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.

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And what a disruption, as stranded travelers used every means at their disposal to make it home. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, returning from San Francisco, was forced to fly to Grand Forks, N.D., then to Lisbon, then to Rome, and then travel by car and bus to Germany — an odyssey that took nearly three days. The British government sent warships from the Royal Navy to pick up stranded vacationers in Spain, while English TV host Dan Snow used Twitter to organize a second Dunkirk evacuation across the Channel for Brits stuck in Calais, France. (It didn't go as well as the first. French immigration officials put a quick stop to the rescue.) Travelers crowded train and bus stations, hoping to get scarce tickets home — or to one of the few European airports that were still operating. To make it back to New York City from London, Kate Winn, a TV executive with the A&E channel, and her colleagues chartered a car — operated by a former driver for the heavy-metal band Iron Maiden who'd never driven outside Britain — for a 22-hour trip from London to Madrid, where they were able to get a flight home, through the Dominican Republic, on April 20. What was the adventure like? "Ugh," says Winn.

By April 21, almost all of the European airspace had been reopened, although airlines cautioned that it would take days or weeks to get back to anything like normal. And there's no guarantee that another eruption and unlucky winds couldn't ground planes again. When Eyjafjallajokull last erupted, beginning in 1821, it continued to do so occasionally for two years. "This sort of eruption is one that's probably going to be on and off for a while," says Davidson. "You could see shutdowns again."

If or when that happens, Europe needs to be far better prepared to deal with it. While there's legitimate debate over just how much volcanic ash must be in the air before planes should be grounded, no one should doubt that European authorities were much too slow and uncoordinated in responding to the eruption. The European Union may have one currency, but it has more than 20 airspaces. It took European Travel Ministers five days to arrange a conference call and work out a system for gradually lifting flight restrictions. Long after airlines had done their own test flights and were calling on authorities to reconsider blanket airspace closings, national authorities dragged their feet — even as the crisis showed how quickly Europe would flounder without air links. "In the U.S., it'd be like every state in the country having their own traffic controllers and trying to coordinate," says Steve Lott, North American spokesman for the International Air Transport Association. "No one took leadership here."

Americans shouldn't feel too cocky. A major volcanic-ash cloud in the U.S. would wreak economic and logistical havoc on the country, which doesn't even have Europe's train links. And the truth is, our understanding of how volcanic ash works and how it spreads is still limited; scientists can't easily measure how dense a plume really is, nor is there any set limit for how much ash a plane can safely fly through. More research is needed — something Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who once famously mocked the federal spending of millions of dollars on volcano monitoring, might want to remember. "If we spend $100 million now, we might actually be able to prevent events that would cost billions," says Benjamin Edwards, head of the earth-sciences department at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. But there's a deeper lesson to Eyjafjallajokull: the earth can still surprise us. As complicated as our transcontinental supply chains and holidays have become, a single shrug from the planet can disrupt everything and leave us marooned far from home. —With reporting by Deidre Van Dyk / New York and Adam Smith / London

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