No. 1: Iceland Volcano

Miraculously, Eyjafjallajokull took no lives after it erupted on April 14. Still, the Icelandic volcano prompted millions of people around the world to shake their fists at it, while non-Icelandic speakers feared to pronounce its name. This mountain spewed a stream of steam, tiny pieces of rock, and minuscule glass particles, and winds carried a tremendous ash cloud (330,000,000 cubic yards) directly into the flight paths of almost every major European airport.

As it happens, volcanic glass particles can get into an airplane’s engines and cause them to fail. Fearing the worst, the European Union immediately halted all flights in and out of 23 European countries for six full days. More than 100,000 flights were canceled, and some 8 million travelers had to make other arrangements — giant slumber parties at airports, or opting for trains, ferries, and cruise ships. “Monty Python” co-founder John Cleese coughed up $5,500 for a cab to take him from Oslo to Brussels.

Airlines and the EU government squabbled about who had to pay for the stranded passengers’ room and board. The chaos seemed like a cosmic joke played by a wily Norse god. Governments may have overreacted in closing airspace, though: Scientists weren’t convinced that Eyjafjallajokull produced enough specks of glass to down a jetliner.

Outside the collective stress the ash cloud caused, the halted air travel — costing airlines about $250 million a day — was a stark reminder of just how interconnected the world’s economies are. Grounded planes stopped the exchange of food products, factory machine parts, and other vital goods, and kept businesspeople at home. Wounded soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, normally sent to Europe for medical care, were rerouted to America.

European air traffic shut down briefly once more in May, before the volcano stopped spewing ash — a big relief to those who feared the eruption would go on for years, or wake up its much larger and even more dangerous sister volcano Katla.

Near Eyjafjallajokull, more than 800 residents were forced to stay indoors for days as the ash caused respiratory problems in the healthiest of adults. Farmers even closer to the mountain range warily watched for a lava flow that would scorch their land.

Homebound Icelanders probably cheered themselves by cruising YouTube for all the non-Icelandic newscasters stumbling over the proper way to say “Eyjafjallajokull” or avoiding the word altogether. Not that people didn’t gamely try, as searches shot up for “how to pronounce Eyjafjallajokull.”

As for why Eyjafjallajokull threw a geothermal fit, University of Iceland volcanologist Freysteinn Sigmundsson told OurAmazingPlanet that “two or more discrete magmatic sources were involved, with magma of different composition.” The interaction between these two may have caused the volcanic temper, and underscored the “complexity of the plumbing system.” Sigmundsson and his team published their findings in the November 18 issue of Nature.

While Eyjafjallajokull is done tripping newscaster tongues, this may not be the last time an Icelandic volcano trips up world travel. Geophysicists fretted in early November when Grimsvotn spouted melted-glacier water. So far, thankfully, there are no signs of an eruption.

–Lisa Hix

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