LONDON – A lingering volcanic ash plume forced extended no-fly restrictions over much of Europe on Saturday, as scientists warned that activity at a volcano in Iceland had increased and showed no sign of abating _ a portent of more travel chaos to come.
Scientists say that because the volcano is situated below a glacial ice cap, the magma is being cooled quickly, causing explosions and plumes of grit that can be catastrophic to plane engines if prevailing winds are right.
“The activity has been quite vigorous overnight, causing the eruption column to grow,” Icelandic geologist Magnus Tumi Gudmundsson told The Associated Press on Saturday. “It’s the magma mixing with the water that creates the explosivity. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.”
An expansive cloud of grit hovered over parts of western Europe on Saturday, triggering extended flight bans that stranded people around the globe. Forecasters said light prevailing winds in Europe _ and large amounts of unmelted glacial ice above the volcano _ mean that the situation is unlikely to change in the coming days.
“Currently the U.K. and much of Europe is under the influence of high pressure, which means winds are relatively light and the dispersal of the cloud is slow,” said Graeme Leitch, a meteorologist at Britain’s National Weather Service. “We don’t expect a great deal of change over the next few days.”
Matthew Roberts, at the Icelandic Meteorological Office, said only about a third of the total quantity of glacial ice in the crater has melted. “There could be days’ worth of water and ice mixed with the eruptive products,” he told the BBC.
The ash plume was rising to about 30,000 feet (9,144 metres) with intensifying volcanic activity, Leitch said. It is possible for planes to fly over the ash cloud, he said, although it is up to individual countries to decide whether they should open higher airspace.
Aviation experts say the volcanic plume has caused the worst travel disruption Europe _ and the world _ has ever seen, except during wars.
“I’ve been flying for 40 years, but I’ve never seen anything like this in Europe,” said Swedish pilot Axel Alegren, after landing his flight from Kabul, Afghanistan, at Munich Airport; he had been due to land at Frankfurt but was diverted.
Anxious passengers have told stories of missed weddings, graduations, school and holidays because of the ominous plume, and some world leaders cancelled plans to attend Sunday’s state funeral for Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria in the southern city of Krakow.
President Barack Obama, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and German Chancellor Angela Merkel still planned to attend. Slovenian President Danilo Turk will travel to Poland by car.
Most of northern and central Europe’s airspace has been shut down, affecting airports from New Zealand to San Francisco.
On Saturday, the French prime minister extended the closure of airspace in northern France until Monday morning. British airspace is closed until at least 0600 GMT Sunday, and forecasters said the ash cloud would progressively cover the whole of the U.K. later Saturday. British Airways is cancelling all flights to and from the U.K. Sunday.
Authorities in the U.K. and Iceland told people with respiratory problems to stay indoors, and the World Health Organization said Europeans should not go outdoors if ash starts settling.
Stranded passengers reported the delays were causing financial hardships. Some had to check out of hotels and sleep in the airports.
“I have been staying in a hotel but have now checked out and do not know what I am going to do _ I have limited financial resources here,” said Anthony Adeayo, 45, who was due to travel from Britain to Nigeria with British Airways.
Others, desperate to return home or get to meetings, rushed to book a ride on ferries, in rental cars or taxis.
Hundreds of weary British travellers were forced to queue up in France for ferry tickets, and P&O Ferries said it was inundated by thousands of calls from stranded air passengers. Ferry crossings between Britain and Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands were also fully booked, while a Virgin Holidays Cruises phone operator said dozens of people have called in to ask about trans-Atlantic crossings to New York aboard the Queen Mary 2 cruiser.
A British taxi firm said it pocketed a fortune from driving a group of clients hundreds of miles to Switzerland. International trains on the continent beefed up services, and the Eurostar was running eight supplementary trains Sunday.
Shoppers were warned Saturday that continued flight bans could spark shortages of imported fresh fruit and vegetables.
“There are no shortages yet, but we may start to see certain ranges affected if this carries on,” said Christopher Snelling, head of global supply chain policy for the Freight Transport Association.
The Belgian and Swiss governments extended their ban until Saturday evening. Italian aviation authorities were closing airspace in northern Italy on Saturday until 1800 GMT. Spain’s Iberia airline is cancelling most of its European flights until further notice.
In the Nordics, air space in the central and southern parts of the region was expected to remain closed at least until Sunday afternoon.
At least 45 flights between Europe and Asia were cancelled Saturday. Australia’s Qantas cancelled all flights to Europe, and passengers were being offered refunds or seats on the next available flight. The airline said it was not known when flights would resume. Cathay Pacific was already cancelling some Europe-bound flights leaving Hong Kong on Sunday.
“The British Airways telephone message says check the Web site for updates, but when you check the site it says call the customer services number,” said James Kirkman, 41, who was visiting family in Australia with his two children. “There’s no information. The kids were due back at school on Monday.”
Southern Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull (ay-yah-FYAH’-plah-yer-kuh-duhl) volcano began erupting for the second time in a month on Wednesday, sending ash several miles (kilometres) into the air. Winds pushed the plume south and east across Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia and into the heart of Europe.
The European air navigation safety agency Eurocontrol says that only some 5,000 flights will take place in Europe on Saturday compared to 22,000 in normal circumstances. On Friday, U.S. airlines cancelled 280 of the more than 330 trans-Atlantic flights of a normal day.
The International Air Transport Association says the volcano is costing the industry at least $200 million a day.
The disruptions hit tourists, business travellers and dignitaries alike.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel had to go to Portugal rather than Berlin as she flew home from a U.S. visit. China, Japan and Russia and five other Asian nations were missing finance talks with the European Union in Spain.
The military also had to adjust.
Five German soldiers wounded in Afghanistan were diverted to Turkey instead of Germany, while U.S. medical evacuations for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan had to be flown directly from the warfronts to Washington rather than to a care facility in Germany. The U.S. military has also stopped using temporarily closed air bases in the U.K. and Germany.
In Iceland, torrents of water have carried away chunks of ice the size of small houses. Sections of the country’s main ring road were wiped out by the flash floods.
More floods from melting waters are expected as long as the volcano keeps erupting _ and in 1821, the same volcano managed to erupt for more than a year.
Iceland, a nation of 320,000 people, sits on a large volcanic hot spot in the Atlantic’s mid-oceanic ridge and has a history of devastating eruptions. One of the worst was the 1783 eruption of the Laki volcano, which spewed a toxic cloud over Europe, killing tens of thousands.