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Iceland volcano eruption slows, ash plume smaller: experts

Japanese seeking quiet holiday run into raging volcano
Kirkjubaejarklaustur, Iceland (AFP) May 24, 2011 - A group of Japanese tourists seeking peace and quiet in Iceland after the devastation in their own country instead came face-to-face with a raging volcano.

The 11 Japanese tourists were hiking on the majestic Vatnajoekull glacier in southeast Iceland on Saturday when the country's most active volcano Grimsvoetn awoke at the heart of the ice, setting off earth tremors and spewing ash and smoke up to 20 kilometres (12 miles) into the air, their guide Hjalti Bjornsson recounted.

"They were quite excited. They had never seen anything like that," the 54-year-old glacier guide told AFP by telephone from Hoefn, where the group remained stranded Tuesday.

The Japanese tourists, he said, "came to Iceland looking for peace and quiet" after the devastating earthquake and tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster that hit Japan in March, "and look what they got!"

"We were about 10 kilometres from the eruption. It was not dangerous," Bjornsson insisted, adding that there was very little wind at first and the hikers were not showered in ash.

"But in the middle of the night, the wind turned ... and ash was blowing all over the hotel where we were," Bjornsson said, adding that by Sunday morning "with the sun shining, it was completely dark. We could see nothing."

The group remained captive in their hotel for several hours. Hardly able to see further than a meter (a yard) in front of them, they witnessed "small birds through the window, just dying. Covered in ash. It was awful," Bjornsson said.

Even the guide, who said he had witnessed numerous volcanic eruptions up close, could not stomach staying inside the ash cloud.

As soon as visibility improved slightly, the group made a run for Hoefn, a small village of about 2,000 inhabitants on the east side of the glacier, only to find themselves stranded with the road behind them closed due to ash and the road in front due to a snowstorm.

"We are still stuck, because usually you can drive around the island, but we got so much snow further north, maybe 20-25 centimetres, a snowstorm actually. ... We cannot go south and we cannot go east," Bjornsson lamented.

While farmers near the volcano rushed to find livestock lost in the dust, the tourist group has by comparison been living quite comfortably in a hotel.

"We escaped from the ash, so here we have blue skies," Bjornsson said, adding that the group had seen "everything" in Hoefn.

"They have an excellent swimming pool here and a sauna. ... We have been at the library, we have been at the folk museum," he says.

As to when they will be able to leave, though, he sighs: "We are still waiting, waiting, waiting."

by Staff Writers
Reykjavik (AFP) May 24, 2011
Activity at Iceland's erupting volcano has slowed significantly and its ash plume, which has dropped to a fraction of its 20 kilometre peak, could disappear by the weekend, experts said Tuesday.

The plume of ash from Grimsvoetn, located in the southeast of Iceland at the heart of its largest glacier, Vatnajoekull, had fallen to two kilometres on Tuesday evening, according to an Icelandic crisis management official.

The column "is decreasing now and the height of the plume is around two kilometres so it's dramatically decreased," Thorir Hrafnsson, a spokesman for Iceland's crisis management agency, told AFP.

"If it behaves like earlier eruptions, hopefully it will be over by the weekend," he said, while stressing "it's very hard to guess."

At an altitude of just two kilometres, the plume "will not be dangerous for air traffic," Hrafnsson said, acknowledging that ash still in the air from the initial blast could continue to cause problems.

"The only danger now is old ash that is up in the air," he said, adding it was "very unlikely (the plume) will increase again."

"There is less activity. ... A lot less of the ash is going into the atmosphere," Petur Matthiasson, a spokesman for Iceland's Civil Protection and Emergency Management Administration, told AFP earlier Tuesday.

"This is good news for aviation at least," Mattiasson said, noting that while "there is still a lot of ash fall in the vicinity of the volcano in the south of Iceland," the lower column of ash meant "there is a lot less going into the atmosphere and going into the jetstream."

On Tuesday, airlines grounded about 500 flights after ash from Grimsvoetn swept over Britain and towards northern Europe.

However, experts said they did not expect to see the same level of air travel disruption as last year, when a cloud of ash from the nearby Eyjafjoell volcano grounded more than 100,000 flights and left eight million passengers stranded.

With its greatly diminished plume of ash, the volcano itself does not for the time being pose a great threat to aviation, Elin Jonasdottir, a meteorologist at the Icelandic Meteorological Office, told AFP.

"The lower the plume the less threat there is to aviation," she said, noting however that the initial burst "did go up to 20 kilometres, which is very, very high, and that is what is going around now."

"The winds over the volcano are mostly northerly, so the ash is blown south, and far south of Iceland there are jetwinds going from west to east, so the ash is blown to Britain and on to Europe and Scandinavia," she said.

Another problem, according to Jonasdottir, was that the winds were shifting a greater concentration of the ash into Icelandic skies and west towards the capital, meaning the country's main airport Keflavik might need to close again.

The airport and most of Iceland's airspace was closed Sunday, but reopened Monday evening.

Hjordis Gudmundsdottir, a spokeswoman for Iceland's airport authority, Isavia, told AFP: "It can be that we will close again, but we think it will be open tomorrow... It's just old ash, we're waiting for the old ash to disappear."

Grimsvoetn is Iceland's most active volcano, erupting nine times between 1922 and 2004, but its eruptions have usually been quite short.

Baldursdottir however noted that the same volcano had erupted for seven months in 1873, but stressed that for most of that period it was a "low-intensity" eruption.

The ongoing eruption has meanwhile shown the most violent start ever registered at Grimsvoetn, and the peak of its plume towered at around twice the height of the column spewed out last year by Eyjafjoell.

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Iceland volcano still spewing ash, Europe threatened
Reykjavik (AFP) May 24, 2011
A plume of ash from an erupting Icelandic volcano headed for Britain Tuesday, forcing flight cancellations and a change in US President Barack Obama's travel plans. The eruption of Grimsvoetn has raised concerns over a repeat of last year's travel chaos sparked by the eruption of another Icelandic volcano which led to the biggest shutdown of European airspace since World War II. "The low ... read more

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