Vast Volcanic Ash Cloud
Germany Faces Extended Flight Ban
The outlook is bleak for air passengers: Wind has driven Iceland's vast volcanic ash cloud across Germany. All the country's major airports except Munich are closed. Now a nationwide flight ban is looming -- and it may last for days. Even Chancellor Angela Merkel has had to abruptly change her travel plans.
The ash cloud from the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull is blowing across Germany. On Friday afternoon the cloud was expected to reach the southern cities of Munich and Nuremberg, Sabine Bork, director of aviation consultancy at the German Weather Service (DWD) told SPIEGEL ONLINE. She said that a flying ban would likely be imposed until Saturday evening at the latest, but the decision was in the hands of the German Transport Ministry.
The volcanic eruption in Iceland brought German air traffic to a near standstill by Friday morning. From midday onwards, planes were only taking off and landing at Munich airport. The southern airport, Germany's second biggest, announced it would close as of Friday evening as the ash cloud spreads. Meanwhile Lufthansa said it was cancelling all its scheduled flights until midday on Saturday.
The thick ash cloud will cloak Germany by midnight on Friday, reported the DWD. Its forecasts are updated every six hours as new data arrives. But so far the situation has not changed: The volcano continues to pump out ash. By now a huge plume of ash is hanging over northern Europe and as long as the northwesterly winds continue, ash will remain above Germany, said Bork.
Possibly Grounded for Days?
The wind will probably not switch direction until late Saturday night or the early hours of Sunday morning, when it may turn westerly -- but even then the ash cloud is unlikely to disappear. Satellite images show that large amounts of ash are hovering above Western Europe, meaning that there is plenty more likely to come. It looks likely that planes in Germany will be grounded for days.
Foto: NASA/ dpa
Photo Gallery: The Waiting Game
The Transport Ministry decides whether to ban flying based on data from the German Weather Service and the Volcanic Ash Advisory Meteorological Center (VAAC) in London. The VAAC is supplying national meteorological services with information about the current situation. Analyzing the ash cloud is a complex process: Its size is not easy to measure and many particles can be detected only by using ultraviolet light. However, UV sensors only work in daylight. Moreover, the danger posed by the cloud involves many factors, including its composition, height and speed.
Experts do not expect the volcanic ash to trigger medical problems. The UK's Health Ministry has only recommended that those with respiratory problems limit their outdoor activities. In Germany, all it is likely to cause is a fine film of dust. It is not a new scenario: At the bottom of German lakes geologists have found various ash layers from Icelandic volcanic eruptions from centuries ago.
Merkel Diverts to Lisbon
Rain could wash large amounts of ash down from the air, but forecasters were expecting sunny weather for Friday in Germany. Occasionally, however, there may be so-called "blood rain:" rust-colored dust particles that float down and shimmer on the roofs of cars.
Meanwhile there is no expected climatic impact, the latest measurements show. The extent to which volcanic dust changes global temperatures in the short term, depends on how much sulfur dioxide (SO2) is pumped by the volcano into the upper layers of the atmosphere. SO2 combines with water to form sulfuric acid. The acid droplets then form a fine veil over the Earth and cool it like a parasol. Apparently, during the recent outbreak in Iceland, no sulfur has reached the upper layers of the atmosphere. But that could change: The Eyjafjallajökull eruption could continue for several weeks and eventually cause large amounts of sulfur compounds.
Meanwhile, the vast ash cloud above northern Europe has also affected the travel plans of Chancellor Angela Merkel who was traveling back from a trip to the US. Originally scheduled to land in Berlin at Berlin at 1:30 p.m. local time, her flight was diverted to the Portuguese capital Lisbon where she is set to spend the night before continuing her journey. A spokesman told Dow Jones news wire that Merkel, her delegation and journalists traveling with her will only be able to make their way back to Germany on Saturday midday at the earliest.