Iceland's volcano outbreak shuts airport
Reykjavik - Iceland closed its main international airport and cancelled all domestic flights on Sunday as a powerful volcanic eruption sent a plume of ash, smoke and steam 20km into the air.
The eruption of the Grimsvotn volcano was far larger than one a year ago at another Icelandic volcano that upended travel plans for 10 million people around the world, but scientists said it was unlikely to have the same widespread effect.
University of Iceland geophysicist Magnus Tumi Gudmundsson said this eruption, which began on Saturday, was Grimsvotn's largest eruption for 100 years.
"It was much bigger and more intensive than Eyjafjallajokull," the volcano whose April 2010 eruption shut down airspace across Europe for five days, he said.
"There is a very large area in southeast Iceland where there is almost total darkness and heavy fall of ash, but it is not spreading nearly as much.
"The winds are not as strong as they were in Eyjafjallajokull."
He said this ash was coarser than last year's eruption, falling to the ground more quickly instead of floating vast distances.
The ash plunged areas near the volcano in southeast Iceland into darkness on Sunday and covered buildings, cars and fields in a thick layer of gray soot.
Civil protection workers urged residents to wear masks and stay indoors.
Iceland's air traffic control operator Isavia said the Keflavik airport, the country's main hub, closed down at 08:30 GMT.
Spokesperson Hjordis Gudmundsdottir said the ash plume was covering Iceland, but "the good news is that it is not heading to Europe," blowing northwest toward Greenland instead.
President Barack Obama was flying to Ireland on Sunday night, but there was no immediate word on whether the volcano would affect Air Force One's flight path.
Trans-Atlantic flights were being diverted away from Iceland, but there was no indication the eruption would cause the widespread travel disruption triggered last year by ash from Eyjafjallajokull.
In April 2010, officials closed the continent's air space for five days, fearing the ash could harm jet engines and millions of travellers were left stranded.