- - Sunday, May 22, 2011


Volcano flings ash, shuts airport

REYKJAVIK — Iceland closed its main international airport and canceled all domestic flights Sunday as a powerful volcanic eruption sent a plume of ash, smoke and steam 12 miles 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 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,” he said. “But it is not spreading nearly as much. The winds are not as strong as they were in Eyjafjallajokull.”

He said this ash is 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 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 4:30 a.m. for the day.

Spokeswoman 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 Obama was flying Sunday night to Ireland, 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.


Bremen vote likely to hurt Merkel’s standing

BERLIN — A regional election in Germany’s state of Bremen on Sunday, seen as likely to further hurt the standing of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s federal government, for the first time involved voters as young as 16.

The number of 16- and 17-year-olds casting ballots in Bremen, the first of Germany’s 16 states to allow under 18s to vote, was less than 2 percent of the state’s 500,000 voters, and was unlikely to significantly affect the result. Only a few countries allow 16-year-olds to vote, including Austria, Equador, Nicaragua and Brazil.

Voter turnout was about 30 percent, slightly below that recorded at the same period in 2007 polls.

The election in the smallest of the country’s 16 states was expected to see the ruling coalition of Social-Democrats (SPD) and Greens returned to power.

Mrs. Merkel’s conservative Christian-Democrats (CDU) were expected to be swept into third place, and her allies in the federal government, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), were tipped to lose all their seats in the regional assembly


Socialists eye setbacks in local elections

MADRID — The ruling Socialist Party braced itself for stinging losses in regional and municipal elections Sunday amid unprecedented street protests that have caught the imagination of the nation.

The elections are a key test of how much the party’s support has crumbled due to soaring unemployment and its handling of the financial crisis, and are seen as a prelude to general elections next year.

More than 34 million people are eligible to vote, while in the background a growing protest movement has illustrated the strong disillusionment felt by Spaniards toward both main parties and what they call a political system that favors economic interests over citizens.

“I call for, encourage and appeal for a responsible, big turnout in these May 22 regional and municipal elections in all of Spain,” Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said as he emerged with his wife from casting his ballot.

Voter turnout by 2 p.m. stood at 35.9 percent, 1.7 percent higher than at the same time in similar elections in 2007, the electoral commission said.

Polls indicate Mr. Zapatero’s party could suffer the humiliation of losing historic Socialist strongholds.

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