- Associated Press - Sunday, May 22, 2011

REYKJAVIK, ICELAND (AP) - A year after an Icelandic volcano grounded planes across Europe, a spectacular new eruption flung up a miles-high ash plume that shut down the country’s main airport, plunged nearby areas into darkness and sent ash drifting toward European airspace.

The Grimsvotn (GREEMSH-votn) volcano, which lies beneath the ice of the uninhabited Vatnajokull glacier in southeast Iceland, began erupting Saturday for the first time since 2004, sending ash, smoke and steam 12 miles (20 kilometers) into the air.

It was the volcano’s largest eruption in 100 years.

The ash from Grimsvotn _ about 120 miles (200 kilometers) east of the capital, Reykjavik _ turned the sky black Sunday and rained down on nearby areas, covering buildings, cars and fields in a thick layer of gray soot. Civil protection workers helped farmers get their animals into shelter and urged residents to wear masks and stay indoors. No ash fell on the capital.

The eruption was far larger than last year’s eruption at the Eyjafjallajokull (pronounced ay-yah-FYAH-lah-yer-kuhl) volcano 80 miles (130 kilometers) away, but scientists said it was unlikely to have the same global impact as that one, which left 10 million travelers stranded around the world.

“It is not likely to be anything on the scale that was produced last year when the Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted,” University of Iceland geophysicist Pall Einarsson told The Associated Press. “That was an unusual volcano, an unusual ash size distribution and unusual weather pattern, which all conspired together to make life difficult in Europe.”

Still, Icelandic air traffic control operator ISAVIA established a 120 nautical mile (220 kilometer) no-fly zone around the volcano, closed Keflavik airport, the country’s main hub, and canceled all domestic flights. It said Keflavik would stay shut until at least noon Monday, canceling about 40 international flights.

Trans-Atlantic planes _ including Air Force One, due to carry President Barack Obama to Ireland later Sunday _ were told to steer clear of Iceland.

The European air traffic control agency in Brussels, Eurocontrol, however, said there was no impact on European or trans-Atlantic flights further south and said it did not anticipate any impact through Monday.

Britain’s Meteorological Office, which runs Europe’s Volcanic Ash Advisory Center, said the plume from the volcano would spread largely northeast until Monday, but some ash would creep south and east, toward the crowded skies over northern Europe.

Where it goes after that depends on the intensity of the eruption and weather patterns.

A Met Office spokeswoman said if the eruption continues at its current rate, “the U.K. could be at risk of seeing some volcanic ash later this week.” She spoke on condition of anonymity because she wasn’t authorized to be quoted by name.

University of Iceland geophysicist Magnus Tumi Gudmundsson said the Grimsvotn eruption was “much bigger and more intensive” than last year’s eruption and 10 times as powerful as Grimsvotn’s last explosion in 2004.

“There is a very large area in southeast Iceland where there is almost total darkness and heavy fall of ash,” he said. “But it is not spreading nearly as much. The winds are not as strong as they were (last year).”

He said the ash now is coarser than in last year’s eruption, falling to the ground more quickly.

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