Volcano eruption leaves ash and fear in its wake

RAUFARFELL, Iceland Wed Apr 21, 2010 6:22pm IST

Ash and steam rise from an erupting volcano near Eyjafjallajokull, Iceland April 20, 2010. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Ash and steam rise from an erupting volcano near Eyjafjallajokull, Iceland April 20, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Lucas Jackson

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RAUFARFELL, Iceland (Reuters) - Icelanders in the shadow of the volcano have seen their fields turned into a grey-brown desert of fine ash in the last week, but now worry the eruptions could trigger the much larger volcano next door.

Some 800 people were evacuated at the start of the eruption under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier a week ago. Now the danger of floods has receded, most have returned to face the damage.

Ash covered the fields from the foot of the mountain south of the glacier to the sea. Houses and cars were also coated with a layer of dust several centimetres (inches) thick and the fine particles found their way inside both homes and vehicles.

"It is not very nice now, it is not very nice," said Gudni Thorvaldsson, 57, as he surveyed his small farm of 50 sheep and 40 horses which he mainly looks after during the summer as a break from his job in Reykjavik at the agricultural university.

The farm cottage has most of its doors taped up and the inside porch is still covered with a fine layer of ash. The sheep were indoors for fear of the possible toxic effect of the ash, which experts say might contain lots of fluoride.

"We saw the cloud of ash go behind these mountains, but the wind turned to us and it came over here. Ash fell all the night and all the day after. All Saturday it was dark like the night," Thorvaldsson said.

In the distance, cars threw up huge clouds of ash dust.

Anna Birna Thrainsdottir, 43, who has a small farm further along the coast towards Reykjavik, said she lost her sense of time in the ash storm as day became night.

"I am happy to have daylight, but we have ash all over, 20 cm of ash. That is of course very bad. We just wait for the rain. We never wish for the rain, but now we wish for it," she said, hoping the rain would hopefully wash the ash away.

"I am worried about what will happen next, will there be more ash in the eruption? We don't know, and that is maybe the worst thing, not to know what will be next," she said.

Volcanologists say experience shows an eruption under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier can, but not always does, lead to the larger Katla volcano waking up. It last erupted in 1918.

Katla also has a much thicker layer of ice over it and it was the magma hitting the ice at Eyjafjallajokull which caused the huge plume that shut down European air traffic for six days.

Professor Pall Einarsson of the Institute of Earth Sciences said the main problem from an eruption of Katla would be huge flooding as the magma would hit the ice cap, which is 600 to 700 metres thick. He said this could unleash floods equal to the size of the Amazon river and possibly again cause an ash plume.

"Katla just comes when it comes. We have been waiting for it about 20 years. Katla erupts once in every century and it last erupted in 1918, it is about time," Thrainsdottir said.

Thorvaldsson agreed.

"We don't know if it (Katla eruption) will happen now, but people are afraid of that, it is much more dangerous."

(Editing by Jon Hemming)

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