GLOBAL: Volcano leaves academics stranded

Among the hundreds of thousands of travellers stranded after the eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano, Freysteinn Sigmundsson can claim to be more frustrated than most.

Sigmundsson, who was stuck in Paris, is an Icelandic vulcanologist who has been studying Eyjafjallajokull's fiery belches and magma movements for nearly two decades.

A call from his research team on Wednesday night told him Eyjafjallajokull had blown but the cloud of ash it sent across Europe grounded flights, keeping him from returning home to study it close up.

"There was disappointment not to be on the site," the 43-year-old scientist said from an office at the earth physics institute of Paris University.

"No one could imagine all the disruption of air traffic from this eruption," he said, still stuck in Paris four days after the blast while waiting for the wind to disperse the huge cloud of ash.

"I'll be frustrated if I'm stuck here for more than a few more days."

Elsewhere, American Nobel Laureate Thomas A Steitz, who lectured at Aarhus University last week, planned to return to the US but had to change his plans after the volcanic ash paralysed air traffic.

Steitz just managed to land at Copenhagen Airport before flying was stopped. Instead of going to Aarhus, he took a sightseeing trip by train through Denmark.

Academic conferences across Europe also had to be cancelled, along with almost every airline flight.

The European Universities Association had long planned to hold a high-level "experts conference" titled Towards Financially Sustainable Universities at the University of Bologna in Italy last Wednesday and Thursday, with experts from across the continent who were to identify the key elements necessary for financial survival in the future.

University leaders, policy makers, researchers and partners from the private sector were to discuss the results of the EUDIS project and further explore the key features and conditions for implementing successful income diversification strategies.

That conference, among many, had to be cancelled and a new date will have to be selected when the airlines overcome the huge backlog of passengers and freight.

Even small events suffered shut-downs: the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University had to cancel a board meeting last Monday and Tuesday, along with a seminar with Nobel Prize winner in economics, Ellinor Ostrom, a member of the board. Ostrom did not manage to cross the Atlantic Ocean in time.

Stockholm Rector Kåre Bremer told staff and students" "Those who are on holidays abroad and cannot get home of course will not have reductions in their salaries..."

Among the thousands of air passengers stranded around the world were several students who had prepared for their oral doctorate defences at Norwegian universities.

These take months of preparations and several hours of dialogue between the first and second opponent and the doctoral candidate. Any delays create huge problems for the candidates.

Last Monday was a historical day at the department of informatics at the University of Bergen where opponents of PhD defence candidate Siv Midtun Hollup were stranded, one in Finland and the other in Frankfurt.

The department managed to have the defence communicated over Skype and Hollup started by presenting her thesis which was transmitted via a web-camera in the auditorium.

The first opponent was Mark Johson in Turku in Finland. After Hollup's presentation, Johson was connected on Skype and he could see her reactions to each of his questions.

The second opponent, Christine Orengo, was stranded in Germany but managed to get back to the UK. She could not find a usable Skype connection so a substitute opponent was found in Bergen who had been sent Orengo's questions by email. He presented the questions in the auditorium.

Hollup's father had wanted to be present but he was stranded in Thailand. He also managed a Skype connection, however, and was able to follow the event.

The thesis was approved and Hollup can now use the title PhD in informatics.

Another PhD candidate, Bjørn Inge Bertelsen in social anthropology, was scheduled for the defence last Thursday. The second opponent, Stephen Lubkeman from the US, was on his way to Bergen but was stranded in Copenhagen.

The faculty of social sciences managed to get Lubkeman a place on the Danish ferry to Oslo. There he was picked up by Bertelsen's sister and taken on a nine-hour trip over the mountains to Bergen.

So Bertelsen managed by a stroke of luck to secure his doctorate defence on Saturday.

Faculty Director Lise Gundersen said it was a problem that not all opponents carried a cell phone. "These events told us how vulnerable this system is in extreme situations," Gundersen said.

Meanwhile, British comedian John Cleese was one of many forced to take a EUR3,800 (US$5,100) taxi ride from Oslo to Brussels after being stranded.

The Norwegian TV2 station reported that Cleese, who was visiting the Norwegian capital to take part in a popular Scandinavian talk show, Skavlan, said the taxi had two extra drivers for the 1,500 kilometre drive.

"I will think about a joke you've probably already heard: How do you get God to laugh? Tell him your plans," Cleese said.

The Oslo Taxi Company said its drivers had made numerous trips between Oslo and Stockholm while some had gone even further, with the longest trip from Oslo to Paris.

* Reports compiled by Jan Petter Myklebust