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Researchers puzzle over how long Iceland volcano will erupt

Ash from Eyjafjallajokull, the Iceland volcano that erupted this week, has caused airlines to cancel thousands of flights. Scientists say the chemical makeup and shape of the ash cloud's dust particles will tell them more.

The Iceland volcano Eyjafjallajokull sends ash into the air just prior to sunset on Friday.

Brynjar Gauti/AP

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As travelers contend with global airline cancellations and delays triggered by clouds of ash from an erupting volcano in Iceland, researchers are trying to judge just how long the mountain's explosive eruptions might last.

While airlines have coped with eruptions along the Pacific Rim's Ring of Fire, this marks the first time modern Europe – with its high concentration of major airports – has had to cope with the disruptions caused by wind-steered clouds of volcanic ash, researchers say.

On Friday, airlines canceled some 16,000 flights, twice the number of cancellations Thursday. Typically, air traffic hovers around 28,000 flights a day.

Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano, the culprit behind the flight cancellations, has erupted only twice before over the past 1,100 years. The volcano's last active period lasted from 1821 to 1823.

And while the glacier-capped mountain's gently sloping silhouette might suggest a type of volcano more likely to ooze lava than blast ash clouds thousands of feet into the sky, those looks can be deceiving, cautions Benjamin Edwards, a volcanologist at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.

Even volcanoes frequently associated with relatively sedate eruptions can spring surprises, he says.


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