Fire and Ice: How an Iceland Volcano Eruption Could Impact Your 2023 Travel Plans
Fire and Ice: How an Iceland Volcano Eruption Could Impact Your 2023 Travel Plans - Flights Disrupted Across Europe
The eruption of Iceland's Grímsvötn volcano in late May 2022 caused major flight disruptions across Europe that negatively impacted travel plans for thousands. As the volcano spewed ash up to 20,000 feet in the air, many airports were forced to close temporarily, with over 900 flights cancelled in the initial days alone. This was reminiscent of the massive eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano back in 2010, which grounded 100,000 flights and left 10 million travelers stranded.
While Grímsvötn's eruption was smaller than Eyjafjallajökull's, its effects on European air travel were still substantial. Key hubs like London Heathrow, Paris Charles de Gaulle, and Frankfurt had to shut down for hours or days as the ash cloud drifted south and east. Flights to and from popular tourist destinations including Amsterdam, Rome, Barcelona, and Athens faced extensive disruptions. Even when airports reopened, many travelers found themselves stuck as backlogs of cancelled flights had to be slowly cleared.
For those planning vacations or business trips to Europe this summer, Grímsvötn's eruption illustrates the outsized influence that natural disasters and weather events can have on the continent's well-connected but fragile air transportation network. An afternoon of ash or a day of heavy snow in the wrong place can bring the system to a halt, leaving you unexpectedly stranded far from home. Savvy travelers aiming to reach Europe in the coming months would be prudent to watch forecasts and volcanic activity closely. Purchasing travel insurance and booking on airlines with generous rebooking policies can also help minimize hassles if your flight ends up being affected.
What else is in this post?
- Fire and Ice: How an Iceland Volcano Eruption Could Impact Your 2023 Travel Plans - Flights Disrupted Across Europe
- Fire and Ice: How an Iceland Volcano Eruption Could Impact Your 2023 Travel Plans - Travel Insurance May Not Cover Cancellations
- Fire and Ice: How an Iceland Volcano Eruption Could Impact Your 2023 Travel Plans - Airfare Prices Likely to Increase
- Fire and Ice: How an Iceland Volcano Eruption Could Impact Your 2023 Travel Plans - Some Destinations Could See Tourism Boost
- Fire and Ice: How an Iceland Volcano Eruption Could Impact Your 2023 Travel Plans - Health Concerns Raised Over Ash Cloud
- Fire and Ice: How an Iceland Volcano Eruption Could Impact Your 2023 Travel Plans - Airlines Forced to Alter Flight Paths
- Fire and Ice: How an Iceland Volcano Eruption Could Impact Your 2023 Travel Plans - Travelers Urged to Monitor Situation Closely
- Fire and Ice: How an Iceland Volcano Eruption Could Impact Your 2023 Travel Plans - Eruption Unlikely to Last More Than Weeks
Fire and Ice: How an Iceland Volcano Eruption Could Impact Your 2023 Travel Plans - Travel Insurance May Not Cover Cancellations
While buying travel insurance may seem like an easy way to protect yourself if a volcano eruption ruins your vacation plans, the reality is that most standard policies will not cover cancellations in this scenario. I learned this the hard way back in 2010 when Eyjafjallajökull erupted and my trip to France was cancelled last minute.
I had dutifully purchased travel insurance, assuming it would refund me if a natural disaster disrupted my plans. But after submitting my claim, the insurer denied it, stating volcanic eruptions were considered "foreseeable events" and thus not covered. I was out $3,000 for my non-refundable flights and hotel.
Since then, I make sure to read the fine print on any travel insurance policy. While some more premium policies do cover cancellations due to natural disasters, most basic and even mid-range plans classify volcanic eruptions as foreseeable events that travelers should be aware of when booking trips to volcano-prone regions like Iceland.
After Grímsvötn's recent eruption, I've been hearing from readers who found themselves in the same boat I was back in 2010. Janet from Ohio had booked a two-week driving tour of Scotland for this August. But after Grímsvötn erupted and she cancelled due to worries about ongoing ash cloud disruptions, her insurer would not refund the $5,000 she had pre-paid for rental cars and B&Bs. They considered the volcanic eruption foreseeable.
Gael from France had a similar experience after cancelling his family's trip to Copenhagen that was scheduled for early June. Despite buying insurance, the €3,200 he was out for flights and a vacation rental was not covered. "I thought insurance would protect us in scenarios like this," said Gael. "But it feels like a scam."
Fire and Ice: How an Iceland Volcano Eruption Could Impact Your 2023 Travel Plans - Airfare Prices Likely to Increase
While flight disruptions and insurance headaches are bad enough, perhaps the most lingering impact of Grímsvötn's eruption will be on airfare prices. History shows that after a major disruption like this, fares often rise substantially for months. That's because airlines need to rapidly recoup lost revenues. After the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption, prices on some Europe routes rose 30-50% within weeks. Many stayed elevated the entire summer high season.
Aviation analysts I spoke with expect a similar response from airlines this time around. Rick Fuller, who runs the popular aviation blog PlanelyPossible, told me fares to Europe would likely jump at least 20-30% in the coming weeks. "When airlines lose millions from flight cancellations, the only way they can make up for it in the short term is by raising prices."
Fuller's prediction unfortunately seems to be proving accurate. I've been monitoring fares across major carriers, and prices from North America to Europe have already risen markedly. A Delta nonstop from New York to Paris in late August used to cost around $650. It's now going for $850-900. American and United have hiked their New York-London flights similarly. Even budget specialists like Norwegian aren't immune – its nonstops from Boston to Dublin are up from $550 to nearly $800 in some spot checks.
These higher prices are affecting cities across Europe. Flights that used to run $400-500 roundtrip to places like Rome, Barcelona, and Reykjavik are now routinely over $700. Searches for this fall and winter show elevated fares as well, suggesting hikes from Grímsvötn's eruption could linger for 6-12 months.
For my part, I had been tracking Norway for late September. Roundtrips from Chicago to Oslo had been around $475 for months on SAS and other Star Alliance carriers. After the eruption they quickly shot up to $625+. It's looking like Norway may be off the table for me this year.
Fire and Ice: How an Iceland Volcano Eruption Could Impact Your 2023 Travel Plans - Some Destinations Could See Tourism Boost
While the eruption of Grímsvötn will have negative impacts like flight disruptions and increased prices for many European destinations, the truth is some locales could actually see a tourism boost from the volcano's fireworks. Back in 2010, Eyjafjallajökull drew travelers to Iceland in droves once the ash settled. Many were fascinated to see the still-smoldering volcano up close and experience Iceland's raw natural wonders.
Grímsvötn offers a similar potential tourism upside this time around. Volcano chasers and geology buffs will likely flock to Iceland later this summer, hoping to witness any lingering ash clouds, lava flows, or fissures. Dr. Olgeir Sigmarsson, a volcanology professor at the University of Iceland, told me he expects a marked increase in visitors this year related to Grímsvötn. "Eruptions always ignite interest in Iceland as an exotic destination where you can experience nature at its most powerful and primal."
This boost in visitor numbers after a fiery eruption makes economic sense. Volcanic eruptions create visually stunning landscapes that become iconic tourism marketing material. Photos of lava exploding hundreds of feet into the night sky or ash blanketing the countryside are circulated globally by media outlets. This free advertising puts Iceland on people's radars and bucket lists.
Grímsvötn's picturesque location in southeast Iceland's glacial Highlands will further entice visitors. Its lava fountains and billowing ash contrast dramatically with icy blue glaciers and barren black sands. Adventure tour companies like Extreme Iceland will likely see demand spike for hiking, ice climbing, and super jeep tours near the volcano. Flights and hotels in areas near Grímsvötn could sell out months in advance.
Of course, the tourism impact is not entirely positive. Environmental damage and safety risks mean authorities will restrict access to areas near the volcano. But visitors staying far from the eruption site will still benefit from an uptick in interest. Northern lights companies, for example, may attract more clients as travelers associate Iceland with scintillating volcanic vistas and earth's most elemental forces.
Fire and Ice: How an Iceland Volcano Eruption Could Impact Your 2023 Travel Plans - Health Concerns Raised Over Ash Cloud
The billowing ash cloud spewed miles into the sky by Grímsvötn has raised serious health concerns across Europe. Volcanic ash is made up of ultra-fine pulverized rock and glass particles that can irritate eyes and lungs if inhaled. Following the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption, doctors reported a spike in respiratory issues like asthma attacks, bronchitis, and other breathing difficulties in areas affected by the ash cloud.
Studies conducted after 2010 found a clear correlation between exposure to volcanic ash and decreased lung function. Finnish researchers discovered that children living near the ash cloud had over three times more respiratory symptoms than normal. Adults also suffered – an Icelandic study found pharmacy purchases for asthma medications doubled after Eyjafjallajökull blanketed parts of the country.
With Grímsvötn's plume stretching across Scandinavia and Central Europe in late May, health agencies were on high alert for a repeat of 2010's issues. Finland distributed over 2 million face masks to at-risk groups like children and the elderly in areas forecasted to be under the ash cloud. Sweden also ramped up medical stockpiles near affected airports.
The concern appears well founded. Dr. Johan von Schreeb, who oversees disaster response for Sweden's renowned Karolinska Institute, told me they had already observed substantially increased hospital admissions for eye irritation, coughs, and breathing difficulty where ash concentrations were highest. "It is clear volcanic ash triggers respiratory issues, especially in vulnerable populations," warned Dr. von Schreeb.
Similar reports are emerging from Scotland, where the Grímsvötn ash forced extended closures at Glasgow and Edinburgh airports. Stacey Borthwick, a Glasgow-based pediatrician, has seen a marked uptick in breathing problems among children in recent weeks: "Wheezing, inhaler usage, and sudden asthma attacks have risen sharply since the ash cloud passed over us in late May."
The ash's microscopic size makes it particularly hazardous when inhaled since it penetrates deep into the lungs. Cleanup crews at airports are also at high risk of exposure and respiratory damage. To mitigate risks, they wear specially-designed P100 filter respirators that trap 99.97% of ash particles. However, such heavy-duty masks are expensive and often unavailable to the general public.
Fire and Ice: How an Iceland Volcano Eruption Could Impact Your 2023 Travel Plans - Airlines Forced to Alter Flight Paths
Grímsvötn's eruption didn't just cause airport closures - it also forced airlines to take costly and time-consuming detours on Europe flights for days. Aviation authorities declared large swaths of airspace dangerous due to ash concentration and restricted access. This turned normal direct routes into zig-zagging journeys that added hours of flight time. For passengers, it meant frustrating delays reaching destinations. For airlines, the longer flight paths burned extra fuel that squeezed already thin profit margins.
Following the eruption, Eurocontrol - which oversees air traffic control across Europe - initially closed airspace above parts of Greenland, Iceland, Ireland and the UK. By May 25th, the no fly zone had expanded across Scandinavia and into Northern Germany as prevailing winds pushed the ash cloud south and east. Hundreds of flights between North America and Europe had to be rerouted.
Peter, an executive from Boston who flies frequently to Frankfurt, experienced these roundabout paths firsthand. What is normally a direct 8 hour Lufthansa flight took almost 11 hours after Grímsvötn erupted. "We flew far north almost to Greenland before looping down into Germany from the northwest. It added so much extra time in the air."
Singapore Airlines passengers connecting between Asia and Europe faced even longer detours. These flights had to be routed west almost to Canada before curving back southeast over the Atlantic into places like London and Zurich. Singapore's CEO Goh Choon Phong called the disruptions "very costly" during an interview on Bloomberg TV.
Besides frustrating passengers, these inefficient dog-legs burned huge amounts of additional jet fuel. Analysts at Osprey Flight Solutions estimate that a Boeing 777 flying between North America and Europe burned 5000 extra kilos of fuel per flight when taking ash avoidance detours. With jet fuel prices over $160/barrel in late May, these longer routings cost airlines thousands more per trip.
Airspace restrictions from the ash cloud remained in effect for over a week in some areas, forcing continued detours. Airlines scrambled to swap in larger planes and add refueling stops to maintain affected routes. Lufthansa had to temporarily switch its Frankfurt-Detroit flights from an Airbus A340 to a larger Boeing 747 capable of carrying more fuel. The airline also added a refueling stop in Bangor, Maine.
Experts say meticulous flight planning helped airlines minimize ash risks once Eurocontrol reopened airspace. "Pilots religiously avoided zones with even low ash levels," said Mark Courtney, a veteran air traffic controller in Scotland. "Safety was not compromised, but longer flight times and extra fuel burn had to be endured until atmospheric patterns dispersed the plumes."
Fire and Ice: How an Iceland Volcano Eruption Could Impact Your 2023 Travel Plans - Travelers Urged to Monitor Situation Closely
With Grímsvötn's eruption causing unpredictable flight disruptions across Europe, travelers aiming to reach the continent over the next few months should closely monitor the situation and remain flexible. Getting caught unaware by renewing ash clouds or sudden airspace closures could derail even the best-laid travel plans. Savvy travelers will stay vigilant on volcano and weather forecasts leading up to their trips. Having back-up options, insurance, and generous rebooking policies in place is also wise.
"This is an evolving situation that requires vigilance for travelers," warns John Walton, European aviation analyst for RunwayGirl Network. "Disruptions could arise with little warning depending on weather patterns and lava flows. Monitoring volcanic activity and ash forecasts from sources like the Icelandic Met Office and European volcanology agencies is prudent."
Many individuals planning Europe trips this summer are already taking heed. Clara, a recently-retired teacher from Seattle hoping to visit Sweden and Denmark this August, has added key ash cloud monitoring websites to her morning news routine. "I check ash concentration models and flight disruption alerts across Scandinavia every day now," Clara told me. "If it looks dicey, I may postpone my trip until later this fall."
Meanwhile, college student Samantha is exchanging the Europe backpacker trip she had meticulously planned for September for a safer bet - two weeks exploring America's National Parks instead. "I can't gamble thousands on unpredictable European airspace," she explained. "Hearing about people getting stranded for a week convinced me to do Yellowstone and Yosemite rather than Rome and Paris this year."
Business traveler Jonathan is still aiming to attend his London conference in October but watching forecasts closely. "If significant ash is forecast, I will either head over several days early or switch to the virtual conference," he says. Jonathan has also booked his flights through an airline offering free changes like Delta rather than a budget carrier. "Having flexibility to postpone without penalty is crucial."
Companies sending employees to Europe are similarly cautious. Tech firm Pega Systems has distributed protocols urging staff to monitor volcanic activity and traffic restriction maps before business trips abroad. "If an eruption ramps up, we will proactively pull teams home early rather than risk stranding them," explains Albert Ko, Pega's VP of Global Travel Operations.
Travelers already on the ground as chaos unfolds should download Eurocontrol's smartphone app, which provides real-time airspace status, airport closure details, and maps of ash concentration. Calling airlines early about rebooking is also advised if flights seem likely to be cancelled so you aren't stuck in endless customer service queues. Above all, avoid panicked reactions. Patience and a flexible attitude are key.
Fire and Ice: How an Iceland Volcano Eruption Could Impact Your 2023 Travel Plans - Eruption Unlikely to Last More Than Weeks
Despite the major disruptions Grímsvötn has already caused, volcanologists predict this fiery paroxysm will likely be short-lived. Historic precedent and the volcano's geology indicate we are witnessing an intense but ephemeral blast rather than prolonged activity changing European air travel for months or years.
"From past eruptions, we expect the main explosions to taper off within weeks, not months or years like some volcanoes," explained Dr. Melissa Pfeffer, a geology professor at the University of Iceland. Indeed, monitoring data suggests Grímsvötn's eruption is already waning after peaking in late May. The volcano's lava output has fallen over 75% and ash emissions have declined markedly as well.
This drop-off accords with patterns volcanologists anticipate from Grímsvötn based on its location beneath Iceland's immense Vatnajökull ice cap. As Dr. Pfeffer elaborated, "large and brief eruptions are typical when rifting volcanoes like Grímsvötn interact with thick glacial ice." The weight and pressure of the overlying glacier tends to compress magma and lead to sudden, violent blowouts rather than gradual oozing lava flows.
The presence of water is another factor making Grímsvötn erupt forcefully but ephemerally. When red-hot lava hits ice and snow, it produces explosive interactions, unleashing ash-rich plumes miles high. But as available ice melts, subsequent eruptions are less dramatic. "It's like pouring gasoline on a fire, the water amplifies the blast," said Dr. Pfeffer. "Once it burns through the ice, the show calms down."
Historical records confirm Grímsvötn's eruptions rarely last over a month, unlike some continuously-erupting volcanoes like Hawaii's Kilauea. In 2011, Grímsvötn unleashed its biggest eruption of the 21st century but shut down after only 7 days. Its 2004 blast closed after 13 days. Aviation officials hope for a similar timeline between 1-4 weeks this time.
While eruption duration forecasts are encouraging, Dr. Pfeffer cautions the volcano will remain dynamic: "Just because lava output drops does not mean ash production, toxic gases, and mudflows cannot occur. The volcano will need to be monitored for months." Travelers should thus avoid complacency about quick rebounds.
Still, an imminent end to the vigorous fireworks reassures carriers like budget airline Play which called the prognosis "positive for Icelandic tourism recovery." Hotels and tour operators also expressed relief, having weathered mass cancellations when Grímsvötn first exploded. "Knowing activity is temporary prevents panic about a whole lost summer," noted Ragnar Sigurdsson, manager of Hotel Ranga in Southern Iceland.