Kiwi volcanologist's disaster study gets real

03:47, Apr 20 2010
A cloud of volcanic ash is seen spreading from the southern side of Iceland in this handout satellite photograph.
ASH CLOUD: A plume of volcanic ash rises into the atmosphere from a crater under about 200 metres of ice at the Eyjafjallajokull glacier in southern Iceland.
Volcanic ash
DELAYS: A screen informs passengers at City Airport that all flights have been cancelled after ash from a volcanic eruption in Iceland caused the UK's airspace to be closed, in London.
STRANDED: Passengers in Arlanda Airport outside Stockholm.
WAITING GAME: A passenger looks at an information screen at the departures area in Madrid Airport.
DELAYED: Passengers wait in line for their connecting flights at Schiphol Airport.
IN FOR A LONG HAUL: Passengers wait in the departures area of Tenerife airport.
Volcano flood
VOLCANO FLOOD: An aerial photo from the Icelandic Coast Guard shows flood caused by a volcanic eruption at Eyjafjalla Glacier. The volcanic eruption Partially melted a glacier, setting off a major flood that threatened to damage roads and bridges and forcing hundreds to evacuate.
Volcanic ash cloud
ASH CLOUD: A plume of volcanic ash rises six to 11km into the atmosphere, from a crater under 200m of ice at the Eyjafjallajokull glacier in southern Iceland.
VIEW FROM SPACE: The ice-covered summit of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano can be seen with fluid magma erupting and a lava flow spreading northeast, spilling into Hrunagil Gully in this image provided from NASA's Earth Observing (EO-1) satellite.
Iceland volcano
A view of the town of Vik, which suffered from power outages, due to ash dissipation, April 16, 2010.
Iceland volcano
A church, engulfed in ash from a nearby volcano, is seen near Vik April 16, 2010.
Iceland Volcano
Ash continues to billow from the volcano in Eyjafjallajokull, April 16, 2010.
Iceland volcano
LIGHTING UP THE SKIES: Lightning streaks across the sky as lava flows from a volcano in Eyjafjallajokull, Iceland, that has caused air travel chaos across Europe.
Horse near volcano
FARMERS FEARS: Farmer Thorarinn Olafsson tries to lure his horse back to the stable as a cloud of black ash looms overhead in Drangshlid 2 at Eyjafjoll.
Stranded passenger
STOPPED BY ASH: A passenger rests on the empty seats of a deserted terminal at Zurich airport in Kloten after all flights were grounded due to volcanic ash in the skies over Europe.
Lava from Iceland volcano
LESS ASH: Molten lava shoots out of an erupting volcano near Eyjafjallajokull.
Iceland waterfall
DIRTY WATER: A woman stands near a waterfall that has been dirtied by ash that has accumulated from the ash plume of an erupting volcano near Eyjafjallajokull.
Iceland volcano
LAVA FLOW: Lava spews from a volcano in Eyjafjallajokull.
SIMMERING DOWN: The sun rises behind an erupting volcano near Eyjafjallajokull, Iceland.
Heathrow arrivals
AT LAST: Richard Young hugs his wife, Sarah, of Bristol, UK, after she arrives from Vancouver at Heathrow Airport.
Heathrow arrivals
LANDED: Passengers arrive from Vancouver on the first flight in five days, due to volcanic ash, at Heathrow Airport.
Berlin air traffic resumes
HAPPY: An Air Berlin plane lands at Tegel airport in Berlin after it was partly opened to traffic.
Iceland volcano
ERUPTIONS CONTINUE: Lava spews from a volcano as it erupts near Eyjafjallajokull.
Iceland volcano
ERUPTIONS CONTINUE: A volcano erupts near Eyjafjallajokull.
Iceland volcano
LIGHTS OVER VOLCANO: The Northern Lights can be seen above the still erupting Icelandic volcano.
Ash from Iceland volcano
ICELANDIC VOLCANO: An ash cloud from the Eyjafjallajokull volcanic eruption sweeps across the countryside in southern Iceland near the village of Asolfsskali.
Ash cloud
TRAVEL WRECKER: A fresh cloud of ash rises from the volcano under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier in Iceland.
Icelandic volcano
VOLCANIC ERUPTIONS: A fresh cloud of ash and lava eruptions are seen in the volcano under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier in Iceland.
ASH SETTLES: A vehicle travels past vegetation along a road covered with volcanic ash in Eyjafjoll. The volcano under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier in Iceland is continuing to erupt with no signs of the explosive activity about to end.
Icelandic horses
ASH PROBLEMS: Stray horses cross a road in Eyjafjoll as the volcano under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier continues to erupt with no signs of the explosive activity about to end.
Traveller rests as flights delayed
MORE DELAYS: A traveller rests with her luggage as flights are delayed and cancelled at Heathrow Airport in London.

A Kiwi volcanologist studying in Europe has found himself in the middle of one of the most disruptive eruptions in recent memory.

GNS scientist David Johnston is stranded in London after attending a disaster planning meeting with 25 other scientists.

The eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland has caused a massive ash cloud to drift across Europe, and led to thousands of flight cancellations in and out of the continent. Dr Johnston had to endure a 33-hour overland journey from Paris to get to the meeting because of the flight groundings, and his return home is also on hold.

"This is what we study, so to be part of it is interesting," Dr Johnston said.

Travelling with renowned British volcanologist Steve Sparks, Dr Johnston said the pair had joined an exodus from France, catching a car ferry to England which normally caters for 25 passengers a day but which carried 700 in this case.

"It was like people fleeing Europe from 60 years ago. It was quite a scene, really ... Everyone's sharing their stories about their exodus and where they'd come from."

Volcanologists and disaster planners had long speculated about the impact of an eruption in Iceland, believing its effect would be significant, but the research had garnered little attention, he said.

The Eyjafjallajokull eruption was relatively small but a "perfect storm" of weather conditions - a high over Europe, which was also downwind from Iceland - meant the ash cloud didn't disperse and blanketed the entire continent.

"Had the weather been normal, strong westerlies or whatever, you wouldn't have had this."

David Johnstone
DAVID JOHNSTON: 'It was like people fleeing Europe from 60 years ago.'


The Eyjafjallajokull eruption had shown how interconnected the world is, and how vulnerable supply chains are to air travel disruptions.

"It does really illustrate how interconnected our society has become and how we are dependent on certain lifelines for functioning."

Booked to fly home tomorrow, with airspace opening up suggesting he might be able to do so, Dr Johnston said the event had prompted research in to safe limits for when planes could fly.

While there was a lack of hard science to guide the decisions, he believed the ash concentration was sufficient to justify the closures.

Airlines have claimed that test flights show it is safe to fly. It is estimated airlines have lost more than US$1 billion (NZ$1.4 billion) after five days of closures and pressure has gone on European governments to open the airways.

"I'm not an atmospheric physicist or an aircraft engineer but the two combined have suggested that it is appropriate not to fly so one would follow that advice. They're not saying that lightly."

Dr Johnston said flights were now largely dependent on weather conditions. Planes could possibly fly even if the volcano continued to erupt, as long as the weather dispersed the ash cloud, rather than letting it sit over top of Europe.

"The weather really is the key to what is happening."


New Zealand experienced similar issues, although on a smaller scale, when Mt Ruapehu erupted in 1995 and 1996.

The eruptions threw out 60 million cubic metres of acidic ash, blanketing areas up to 300km from the volcano, with plumes reaching 10km into the air.

Aviation authorities declared no-fly zones in the North Island, with about 11 airports forced to close as well as State Highway 1 on several occasions.

The ash also caused millions of dollars of damage to hydro-electric turbines and electricity transmission facilities in the central North Island. Crops were damaged and livestock killed.

GNS volcanology section manager Gill Jolly said New Zealand had learned valuable lessons and had good monitoring systems in place.