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June 12, 2011

Chilean Volcanic Ash Causes Flight Disruptions in Australia

A volcanic ash cloud from Chile has left thousands of travelers stranded for a second day in Australia and New Zealand.  Strong winds have carried the ash more than half way around the world since Chile's Puyehue volcano erupted more than a week ago.  

The cloud of volcanic ash has been blown 10,000 kilometers across the Atlantic and Indian oceans, and has drifted over parts of southern Australia and New Zealand causing travel chaos for thousands of travelers.

The main concentration passed over New Zealand yesterday and into the Pacific Ocean, but there are still small parts of the cloud which have broken off and that’s affecting airlines in Australia,” noted Gordon Jackson. He is a meteorologist with the Volcanic Ash Center in Darwin.

Scores of flights have been canceled over the past two days.  Services between New Zealand and Australia have been disrupted, along with many domestic routes in both countries.

Australia's national airline Qantas said all flights in and out of the southern island of Tasmania, and those to New Zealand were grounded Monday.

Other carriers have, however, decided to resume flights.  Virgin Australia said it believed it was safe to fly to Melbourne, Tasmania and New Zealand, adding its planes would fly around or under the ash.

Air New Zealand has kept its passengers services in the air by rerouting flights and flying at lower altitudes “to completely avoid the ash”.  The airline said it was monitoring developments closely.

Professor Richard Arculus, a professor of geology at the Australian National University, believes the ash cloud will soon be blown back towards South America.

“You can see the ash coming. It has come all the way around the Atlantic and across the Southern Ocean, Indian Ocean and is almost going to do a loop on itself. It is heading back towards South America. So it will take a few days for that to disperse. The question of course for travelers is - what is the density of particles per cubic meter, that's the thing the airlines worry about,” said Arculus.

The Puyehue volcano in Chile has been erupting for the past week, throwing South American air travel into chaos as it spews ash high into the atmosphere.

In neighboring Argentina the cindery cloud has closed roads, blanketed grazing pastures and a ski resort. Local and international flight schedules have been severely disrupted.

Last year a volcano in Iceland sent vast plumes of ash over parts of Europe, grounding more than 100,000 planes as authorities were concerned over potential damage from the razor-sharp ash particles to jet engines.

In November eruptions of Indonesia's Mount Merapi caused the cancellation of dozens of flights.

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