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Influences of the Mt. Eyjafjallajökull eruption on the atmosphere

In the morning of April 11, Mt. Eyjafjallajökull, a volcano which is covered by a glacier, erupted in the southwest of Iceland. Its cloud of ashes rises up to altitudes of 10 – 12 kms and has been shifted towards Central Europe by a northerly airstream since Thursday (animation).

The ash particles are slowly sinking downwards in the air, obstructing aviation in many places. In the atmosphere they dim the light (photos C. Hinz 123) and make Bishop´s Ring visible (photo P. Krämer), which is caused by light refraction on the aerosoles.

In high levels of the atmosphere, the particles act as additional nuclei for condensation, on which humidity (which under normal circumstances is not sufficient for cloud formation) freezes and forms ice crystals generating so-called “Invisible Cirrus Clouds”. Size and/or density of the ice crystals is in most cases not high enough to make the clouds visible, but their existence can be proved by the formation of faint halos such as sun pillars (photo Ina Rendtel), sundogs (photo Reinhard Nitze), or the 22°-halo (photo Brigitte Rauch).

There are still doubts regarding the appearance of the colourful twilight effects known from the eruption of Mt. Sarychev. Measurements with a Lidar effected by the Hohenpeissenberg Meteorological Observatory have shown that most of the aerosoles are at altitudes between 3.000 and 7.000 meters. A heavy rainshower should be enough to wash them out of the atmosphere and make the air clean again. An elevated concentration of sulphuric acid, which after the eruption of Mt. Sarychev formed several layers at different altitudes and caused beautiful purple light and afterglow effects, has not been measured at all. Probably the SO2 ejected by Mt. Eyjafjallajökull is chemically combined to water at the moment when the ash cloud is formed. The explosions, however, are generated by the contact of lava with ice, and every time a part of the glacier falls into the lava, there is plenty of water provided for such a reaction.

Authors: Claudia Hinz, Peter Krämer and Wolfgang Hamburg