Sigurdur Gislason pulled off a move in his sports utility vehicle last Thursday that his colleagues considered a real stunt. The 52-year-old geochemist put his foot on the gas and drove right into the cloud enveloping the Eyjafjallajökull volcano.
"Of course I was scared," Gislason says. At first it was as if he had plunged into a thick fog. Then it grew darker still. In the light cast by his headlights, Gislason saw wind fanning soft, fluffy ash across the road in gentle waves. That was precisely what he was looking for: "The ash shouldn't have mixed with water yet."
Gislason knew the volcano might start to fling out rock again at any moment. He knew, too, that lighting might strike out of nowhere. "That can occur in these electrically charged clouds," he explains. Even breathing meant danger, since the micrometer-sized ash particles are as sharp as needles. "It's glass, essentially," Gislason says.
But the Icelandic geochemist's daring paid off. It was pitch black when he stopped the vehicle, putting on a protective mask and a motorcycle helmet. Then he got out and started to scoop the powdery ash from the volcano into high-purity plastic bags.
Gislason didn't know then that the substance he was currently sampling at risk to his own life would shortly trigger the most wide-spread chaos in the history of European transportation. While Eyjafjallajökull did nothing more within Iceland than cause a car bridge to collapse, it brought Europe's aviation industry to its knees 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) away.
One volcano achieved what hurricanes, terrorists and flu viruses never managed -- Heathrow, Paris, Frankfurt, Schiphol and all of Europe's other major hubs came to a standstill on Friday afternoon. Airlines canceled 17,000 flights, while Frankfurt and Amsterdam airports set up thousands of camp beds. Losses for airlines are estimated at up to a billion dollars.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was forced to interrupt her flight home from a visit to the US, landing in Lisbon instead. A Medevac Airbus air ambulance carrying injured German soldiers home from Afghanistan only made it as far as Istanbul. And British comedian John Cleese of Monty Python fame found himself stuck in Oslo. He hired a taxi and was able to reach Brussels for a fee of 3,800 ($5,100).
"I've worked in the industry for 25 years, but this dwarfs anything else I've experienced up to now -- even the events following September 11," says Michael Garvens, director of Germany's Cologne-Bonn Airport. Stranded shipping containers are piling up where normally up to 50 FedEx, DHL and UPS cargo planes arrive every evening. The airport's background noise is no longer roaring jet engines, but twittering birds. "The whole thing is like a lake where the inlets have been cut off and the water is slowly drying up," Garvens says.
This forced shutdown hit the air freight industry at the worst possible time. Many airlines reduced their capacity in the course of the global financial crisis. But after the economy recovered surprisingly quickly, especially in Asia, transport capacity was suddenly tight.
Cell phones and computers were piling up in Hong Kong and Shanghai late this week. Global transportation company Kühne + Nagel is desperately looking for temporary storage space.
Companies everywhere are taking precautions against a worst-case scenario. German engineering giant Siemens used some of the last planes in the air to stock up its replacement parts storage facility in Mississippi, to ensure supplies for clinics and hospitals in the US. Logistics experts at automaker BMW brooded over how they will transport leather seat covers from South Africa to Bavaria if the situation intensifies.
It all began midday on Wednesday, when a telephone rang in Exeter, southern England. Icelandic meteorologists were calling to inform their British colleagues at the Met Office, the United Kingdom's national weather service, that Eyjafjallajökull was spouting ash and a cloud of volcanic dust was blowing eastward from Iceland.
The Met Office operates one of nine centers around the world that assess the risk posed by volcanic ash. The British office is responsible for the Northern Atlantic, a fairly small region but with two distinguishing features -- the area contains some of the world's most important flight routes, as well as one of the most volcanically active regions, thanks to Iceland.
The meteorologists immediately put their supercomputer on the job, feeding it measurement data, weather forecasts and satellite images. Fifteen minutes later, they had their first forecast of how the dust cloud would probably spread. A warning was sent out to airlines at 2 p.m., long before the cloud reached the European continent.
On Wednesday evening, a postal airplane in northern Norway first reported swaths of ash over the ocean. On Thursday morning, air traffic authorities closed Scottish airspace. Shortly afterward, the skies above London also experienced a state of quiet such as the city hadn't known in decades.