May 21, 2011 / 8:57 PM / 9 years ago

Iceland volcano erupts, experts play down flight risk

REYKJAVIK (Reuters) - Iceland’s most active volcano erupted on Saturday and hurled a plume of white smoke far into the air, but experts played down the likelihood it would cause similar disruption to air traffic as a volcano last year.

The local air traffic authority imposed a flight ban around the area, but a spokeswoman said this was a precautionary measures until the extent of the problem was known.

The explosion at the Grimsvotn volcano, under the Vatnajokull glacier in southeast Iceland, came just over a year after a volcano under another glacier sent a huge plume of dust into the sky and halted European air traffic for days.

“It can be a big eruption, but it is unlikely to be like last year,” Icelandic Met Office geologist Hjorleifur Sveinbjornsson told Reuters, referring to the April 2010 eruption under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier.

He said the plume from the Grimsvotn volcano, which last exploded in 2004, had been seen on radar screens as high as 15 km up, but he said the smoke was going straight up into the air.

Hjordis Gudmundsdottir, spokeswoman for the Isavia civil aviation authority, said a flight ban of 120 nautical miles had anyway been imposed around the area.

“We close the area until we know better how the ash is going to work,” she said.

Domestic airline Icelandair said no traffic had been affected. “We do not expect the Grimsvotn eruption to affect air traffic to and from the country in any way,” said Icelandair communications director Gudjon Arngrimsson.

Pictures on local media websites showed a thick cloud of white smoke like a mushroom cloud over surrounding mountains.

Air control authorities halted flights last year due to fears that the dust and ash from the Eyjafjallajokull glacier volcano would get into engines and cause accidents after the cloud was blown into European air traffic lanes.

“Grimsvotn is a very powerful volcano, so we’re monitoring it closely, even if the last few eruptions have been harmless,” University of Iceland geophysicist Pall Einarsson was quoted on the website of newspaper Morgunbladid as saying.

He said ash was also coming from the volcano, but added: “We do not expect this to be a big one as it’s coming from the same crater as the last three eruptions, which were all small.”

Morgunbladid quoted a farmer in an area south of the glacier as saying that ash had already begun to fall on the settlement.

Sveinbjornsson said a team of scientists had flown out to the area to gather more information.

Reporting by Omar Valdimarsson in Reykjavik, Patrick Lannin in Stockholm; Editing by Jon Hemming

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