Diary of a mad Icelandic volcano – Grímsvötn attacks


Everyone heard about Eyjafjallajökull (say it with me: Aey-ya-fiat-la-yo-khult, Eyja means island, fjall means mountain and jökull means glacier), commonly referred to as ‘the volcano’ or simply ‘Eya’, that erupted in April 2010.

Most of Europe was affected for weeks by the ash cloud as it coated the continent and cancelled air travel.

When I visited Iceland in December 2010 I realised why.

Even 7-8 months after the eruption, there was still ash on the ground and every wind gust blew blinding ash at us, making driving difficult and causing our cameras to fail temporarily.

The fine ash from Eyjafjallajökull got into every nook and cranny. There was ash in our car and in our bags. It coated anything that was wet or damp and created a fine layer of ash on our skin.

It was an adventure and we laughed about it, but we could easily see why it wreaked so much havoc on the continent.

When Eyjafjallajökull erupted, I was in Podgorica, Montenegro and it even affected us. Podgorica doesn’t have many tourist attractions, but it happens to be the capital of Montenegro and home of the country’s international airport. The number of guests at the hostel went down drastically as travellers weren’t able to fly in from or out to northern Europe.

Fast forward a year and on Wednesday, 25 May 2011 I had plans to fly to London from Newark Airport via Keflavík, Iceland, on the southwestern tip of the country, one hour south of Reykjavík.

As luck would have it, Sunday 22 May at 7p local time (noon Pacific time), Grímsvötn (pronounced krims-votn, vötn meaning water), a volcano on the Vatnajökull (vaht-na-yo-khult), glacier, decided to erupt.

It not only erupted, but it chose to outdo Eyjafjallajökull.

Sunday 22 May 2011
Grímsvötn’s eruption was stronger than Eyjafjallajökull.

Great.

Within an hour of Grímsvötn errupting, Reykjavík was covered in ash. Keflavík Airport was closed and all flights were cancelled.

The ash in the air can easily destroy electronics temporarily or permanently (as we had seen with our cameras in December), so flying in it is obviously not a good idea.

The problem with Eyjafjallajökull’s ash was that it was very fine and light so it stayed in the air and floated all over Europe, causing chaos and cancelling flight in its wake.

Luckily, the ash from Grímsvötn wasn’t as fine as Eyjafjallajökull’s. Since it was coarser, it was heavier and we hoped would not stay in the air as long as Eyjafjallajökull’s. The coarser ash from Grímsvötn was thought to fall and settle much faster.

The winds were also in my favour. During Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption, the winds were strong and blowing to the south or south east (toward Europe).

This time, the winds were much weaker and blowing in a northerly direction, pushing the ash north and northwest.

On an ironic sidenote, Keflavík Airport was open in Iceland after Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption because of the winds pushing ash away from the airport even though most of Europe’s airports were closed.

The heavier ash from Grímsvötn coupled with the northerly winds created much better circumstances than during Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption.

It was predicted that the ash will settle quickly.

Some would make its way to the UK and Ireland, but it wouldn’t cause as much of a problem for air traffic as with Eyjafjallajökull.

Monday 23 May 2011, morning
All flights through Iceland were cancelled.

It was predicted that the ash would get to the UK and Ireland by Tuesday but some flights in the UK were cancelled already, mainly the trans-Atlantic flights.

It didn’t look good for me, but Wednesday was still a long way. A lot could happen.

Monday 23 May 2011, afternoon
On the SeaTac arrivals and departures board, while waiting for my flight to the East Coast, I could see there was a flight going to Keflavík, Iceland that was scheduled to be on time.

By 7p Iceland time, flights were fully resumed at Keflavík Airport.

I was very happy, but everything could still change. It would just take the wind changing or Grímsvötn to give another puff of ash and all the sudden, I’d be stranded in New York, unable to fly through Keflavík.

It just needed to hold off for two more days and I could fly to London and continue on by land to Italy as planned.

Tuesday 24 May 2011, morning
It looked like Keflavík Airport was open and flights were arriving and departing fine. Hopefully it would stay the same through the next few days. I had my fingers crossed.

Wednesday 25 May 2011, 9.00p
I was at the airport and even 35 minutes before departure, we hadn’t begun boarding. I hoped they weren’t delaying the boarding because of possible cancellation.

Wednesday 25 May 2011 9.45p
We were finally on the airplane and it sounded like the plane was late arriving because of some delay in Iceland.

They didn’t said anything about the ash, so I guessed the predictions were right and the ash was going away from Iceland.

Thursday 26 May 2011, morning
I arrived in Keflavík and there was no ash, no clouds and no unexpected wind. Great!

A man at Duty Free told me the Grímsvötn eruption was indeed worse than Eyjafjallajökull (or simply ‘Eya’, as he called it), but it only closed Keflavík Airport for 24 hours after the eruption.

We were ready to board our onward flight to London and there seemed to be no delay.

I tried to switch my seat to the left side of the plane so I could try to see the volcano when we flew over, but it was a booked flight and no space to switch seats.

It looked a bit cloudy, but it didn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary.

Thursday 26 May 2011, evening
I arrived safe and sound, though sweaty and soaked in London.

A long, overnight flight certainly gives you that gross travel feeling and London greeted me with more rain in one day that they had in the last 20 days altogether.

Well, at least I arrived.

Grímsvötn didn’t affect my flight at all and turned out to be a complete non-issue.

Thankfully, it didn’t turn into another Eyjafjallajökull and I could safely continue on my way to Italy – by land.

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