Tag Archives: Iceland

The Future of European Aviation?

by Benjamin Sacks

Proposed European FABs.

Proposed European FABs.

The eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökul volcano on 20 March 2010 demonstrated the weaknesses in Europe’s diverse air traffic control network. As a massive ash cloud up to 8 kilometres high gradually extended across western Europe, forcing the cancellation of thousands of flights and stranding millions of passengers across the entire continent. Although European air controllers correctly prioritised passenger safety above all other factors, the scenario left many airline industry commentators and journalists frustrated with the European Union’s apparent inability to swiftly and effectively act on changing meteorological and airline information. With few exceptions, the maintenance of separate airspace quadrants by each EU member, each with different processes, response mechanisms, as well as external pressures from airlines and politicians, all contributed to delayed and even contradictory responses in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Oslo.

In Eyjafjallajökull’s wake, the International Aviation Transportation Authority (IATA), in cooperation with the EU, proposed the establishment a single European air zone, divided into nine ‘functional airspace blocks’. Citing the current system’s woefully inefficiency – e.g., ‘With fewer air traffic controllers the United States FAA [Federal Aviation Authority] is able to deliver 70% more controlled flight hours than Europe]’ – the IATA / EU consortium called for a reorganisation, or ‘rationalisation’ of air traffic control hierarchies, technological modernisation, and substantially better (and more transparent) communication between national aviation authorities. Optimistically entitled ‘Single European Sky’ (SES), officials set a date of 4 December 2012 for its implementation.

But, as Dr Christopher Lawless (Durham University) reminds us in his March 2014 Geographical Journal commentary, 4 December 2012 came and went with little change. Only two of the nine blocks – Denmark-Sweden and UK-Ireland – had reached operational status. National-level aviation oversight bodies – intended to be the vanguard of transnational cooperation – had made little progress in communicating or facilitating with their neighbouring counterparts. Bickering, unsurprisingly, had early on replaced collaboration. At the EU Aviation Summit in Limassol, Cyprus, Siim Kallas, European Commission joint Vice President and Transport Commissioner, attacked EU states for ‘their “undue protection of national interests'” (Lawless p. 76).

Of the seven non-operational airspace blocks, two (Iberian Peninsula and Central Mediterranean) had not even progressed beyond the ‘definition stage’ (p. 77). Fearing the loss of their jobs and the complete overhaul of learned ATC procedures, French and German air traffic controllers repeatedly threatened strikes.

Lawless examined SES’s problematic history through Sheila Jasanoff and Sang-Hyun Kim’s 2009 paradigm of ‘sociotechnical imaginary’. The European SES programme sought to mix technological requirements with larger political aspirations, inevitably leading to discord between various member states. Airlines, already struggling to break even financially, balked at restructuring costs (p.80). Spatially, air spaces were eventually designed along largely existing geographical and geopolitical lines, as the UK-Ireland, Denmark-Sweden, and Italy-Mediterranean sectors clearly demonstrate (p. 78). In reality, these geopolitically-influenced air spaces make little sense with the traffic patterns of most passenger flights:

[T]he highest density region of European air traffic…spans a corridor encompassing the airspace of the UK, Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Italy. Under the current arrangement, this straddles four separate FABs…(p. 78).

Lawless concludes by calling for a comprehensive inquiry into sovereign states’ concerns, risk assessments, and considerations, and re-drawing the air space landscape in a more logical (and less state-specific) manner. Ultimately, he stressed that even such ‘apolitical’ projects as SES are unfortunately ridden with politics, negotiation, and self-interests.

The SES debate will continue to fascinate observers for some time. Agonising, protracted discussions over the future of London’s airspace – the world’s busiest – between Conservative officials, led by Boris Johnson, and Labour opponents seem unlikely to end amicably, or soon. This regional crisis, combined with Britain’s current national debate over its long-term role within the EU, will only further complicate the SES’s possible re-development and implementation.    


Gertisser R, Eyjafjallajökull volcano causes widepread disruption to European air trafficGeology Today 26.3 (May-Jun.: 2010), 94-95.

books_icon IATA / EU, A Blueprint for the Single European Sky: Delivering on safety, environment, capacity and cost-effectiveness, 2011.

books_icon Lawless C, Commentary: Bounding the vision of a Single European SkyThe Geographical Journal, 180.1 (Mar., 2014): 76-82.

60-world2 Sacks B, Eyjafjallajökull: Geography’s Harsh ReminderGeography Directions, 18 February 2011.

60-world2 Q&A: EU response to Iceland volcano ashBBC News, 25 May 2011.

60-world2 Iceland volcano ash: German air traffic resumingBBC News, 25 May 2011.

60-world2 Hofmann K, French, German ATCs postpone strikes over Single European SkyAir Transport World, 24 January 2014.


Déjà vu?

By Sarah Mills

Airline passengers in Scotland and parts of Northern England face delays and cancelled flights today due to Saturday’s ash eruption from Grímsvötn volcano in Iceland.  These scenes are similar to those in April 2010 when another Icelandic volcano – Eyjafjallajökull – erupted, prompting widespread travel chaos.  However, scientists and commentators expect the disruption to be far less than last year for a number of meteorological reasons and improved aviation regulations.  Transport Secretary Philip Hammond claims authorities have a “much better understanding” of the risks and that “the threshold for most aircraft is 20 times where it was last year…What we can’t promise is that there won’t be disruption when there is a major natural event like this.”

Amy Donovan and Clive Oppenheimer reflected on last year’s Eyjafjallajökull eruption in a recent article in The Geographical Journal.  They reviewed the scientific background of the eruption in the context of European volcanic activity and argued that “the apparent breakdown of communication between scientific research, policy makers and the public is a manifestation of a wider problem”.  Furthermore, they claimed that “transdisciplinary channels for the movement of knowledge beyond the academic community need to be enhanced” (2011: 4).  In light of this new eruption at Grímsvötn, and the supposed provisions and increased levels of governance in planning for such eventualities, the coming days and weeks will reveal to what extent lessons have already been learned.

Read ‘Volcanic ash cloud: thousands face flight delays and cancellations’ in The Guardian  

Read A. Donovan and C. Oppenheimer (2011) The 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption and the reconstruction of geography. The Geographical Journal, 177: 4-11.

Eyjafjallajökull: Geography’s Harsh Reminder

Eyjafjallajökull’s 2010 eruption. Wikimedia Commons.

by Benjamin Sacks

THE ERUPTION of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull on 20 March 2010 caught Europe dangerously off-guard. For two months, waves of ash closed some of the world’s busiest airspace. An estimated ten million passengers were left stranded, international train services collapsed under the heightened strain of people seeking alternate transportation, and governments were left to deal with angered airlines seeking to regain some portion of lost revenue. In total, over one hundred thousand flights were cancelled. The legal and political fallout of Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption continues today. A fundamental questions lies at the heart of this debate: why wasn’t Europe better warned or prepared? Amy R Donovan and Clive Oppenheimer (University of Cambridge) highlighted this problem in their March 2011 Geographical Journal commentary. The danger such natural events as Eyjafjallajökull pose, as Donovan and Oppenheimer argue, is that they lie outside the traditional realm of managerial governance.

Many natural events, however dangerous, lend governments two favours: first, relatively ample warning; second, comparatively localised impact. Hurricanes are an excellent case-in-point. Every summer NOAA, the United States’s oceanographic and atmospheric monitoring agency, continuously tracks existing storms and recalculates their future projectories. Excepting such hurricanes as Andrew and Katrina–most hurricanes cause damage across a limited geographic expanse before weakening significantly in strength. The snowstorms that rack the American northeast are similarly tracked in advance so that appropriate precautions can be taken (even if, in the event, those precautions prove inadequate).

The Eyjafjallajökull eruption, much like the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and the 2010 Haiti earthquake, presents a very different scenario. Such events are difficult to forecast, even more difficult to contain, and–like other natural events–impossible to prevent. But, as The Geographical Journal commentary noted, preventative steps could have been taken. Although the Met Office’s Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre (VAAC), clearly noted the airspace risks posed by Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull volcanoes, this information was not included in the annual National Risk Register, nor did it predicate the implementation of ‘sophisticated, integrated UK or EU policy in advance of the recent volcanic activity’ (p. 2). One hopes that the Eyjafjallajökull airspace fiasco will serve as a reminder of our inability to tame the extremes of physical geography.

Jersey Tourists Lost to Volcanic Ash Disruption“, BBC News 11 May 2010. Accessed 18 January 2011.

Amy R Donovan and Clive Oppenheimer, “The 2010 Eyjafjallajökull Eruption and the Reconstruction of Geography“, The Geographical Journal 177:1 (Mar., 2011): pp. 4-11.


Ash, health and uncertainty

Eyjafjallajoekull volcanic eruption, April 2010

Eyjafjallajöekul, taken by NASA’s Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite, 1st April 2010

I-Hsien Porter

As ash from the Eyjafjallajöekull eruption in Iceland drifted across Europe earlier this month, the World Health Organisation (WHO) admitted that the health risks were uncertain. Contrasting news stories emerged. On 15th April, the BBC News Website published the reassuring headline, “Iceland volcano ash is ‘no threat to human health’.” The next day, The Daily Telegraph opened an article with a slightly more alarming title: “Volcanic ash can kill thousands but unlikely to drop on Britain.”

In a recent paper in Geography Compass, Gail Millar and others review methods for measuring the risk to human health from particulate matter – small particles of ash, dust or pollution suspended in the atmosphere. The difficulties of collecting information about volcanic ash rapidly become apparent. Flights were banned over the UK, so scientists were limited in their ability to collect data about the concentration of ash. The consequences of falling ash for people are also complicated by differences in the vulnerability of different individuals (e.g. children, the elderly) and their exposure (requiring knowledge about individuals’ activity).

Because extreme events are rare, there is clearly a need for more research into their outcomes. Geographers are well placed to understand the combination of physical and human processes that control the impact of extreme events.

View the BBC News article here http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8588048.stm G. Millar et al. (2010) ‘Evaluating Human Exposure to Fine Particulate Matter Part I: Measurements.’ Geography Compass 4 (4): 281-302

View the BBC News article here http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8588048.stm BBC News, ‘Iceland volcano ash is ‘no threat to human health’.’

View the BBC News article here http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8588048.stm The Daily Telegraph, ‘Volcanic ash can kill thousands but unlikely to drop on Britain.’

Land of Ice and Fire; and Dust

By Paulette Cully 

Iceland is at present living up to its epithet of a land of ice and fire since the most recent volcanic eruption took place on 20th March 2010. Quiet for the last 120 years, Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano awoke, disgorging lava fountains and flows and later plumes of volcanic dust. However, as far as natural disasters go, according to Degg and Chesters (2006) writing in The Geographical Journal, earthquakes, droughts, floods and windstorms are the four major players in terms of losses, which claimed almost two million lives between 1900 and the time of writing. In contrast volcanic eruptions over the same time period caused less than 100,000 deaths. Commonly, volcanic hazards are spatially more restricted than other natural hazards, but Eyjafjallajökull has proved to be an exception, causing widespread disruption to air travel over Europe. 

NASA who have been monitoring the event using satellite artificial intelligence  are concerned that this eruption might be a precursor to another larger eruption at the Katla volcano nearby and if this is the case they will be ready to provide imaging data of any eruption as it progresses. On the ground, earthquake and volcanic activity is monitored by the Icelandic Meteorological Office (IMO) which observes earth movements via GPS monitors, water conditions and weather and issues warnings based on these observations. In addition, the IMO has weather radar situated at the southwest tip of Iceland which aids in calculating the height of the ash plume which is essential for determining the distribution of the ash.  Allaying the fears of NASA, as of the 20th April the IMO have measured no earthquakes at Katla and GPS measurements do not indicate a forthcoming eruption. 

As for how long Eyjafjallajökull will continue to erupt; the answer is blowing in the wind. Volcanologists can only speculate, although the last time that the volcano erupted in 1821 it continued to erupt from time to time over a period of a year.

Read the full NASA article 



Keep informed of seismic activity in Iceland



Read the Degg and Chester article in The Geographical Journal