REYKJAVIK -- An Icelandic volcano that has grounded planes across Europe is spitting lava but less ash, officials said on Monday, offering travellers hope that skies might clear at a faster rate.
Iceland's erupting volcano sent powerful new tremors on Monday, but scientists said the ash plume rising above its crater was now reaching a height of about 1.2 miles. Last week, the tower of ash was as high as 6.8 miles.
"The situation is definitely better than it was particularly on Saturday, which was a difficult day for us due to heavy ash fall just south of the volcano," said Urdur Gudmundsdottir, a spokeswoman at the foreign ministry.
But Gudmundsdottir was careful to avoid saying the worst was over for the island of 320,000 -- and for the tens of thousands of people stranded at airports for the past five days.
"As you know, things are changing very quickly," she said.
An official at the Meteorological Office said ash production had fallen sharply and the nature of the eruption appeared to be changing.
"Our web cameras show that there is not much ash but mostly steam now," said Hjorleifur Sveinbjornsson, a geologist at the Meteorological Office. "The color of the steam is brown but also quite white so it is more like water vaporizing."
There was still a risk, however, that molten rock could create new pathways for water to run into the crater, causing more explosions and a higher level of ash production, he said.
Scientists flying above the volcano told the Met Office lava had burst from the crater and onto the Eyjafjallajokull glacier that sits atop the volcano. The glacier, about 75 miles southeast of Reykjavik, is normally a popular hiking ground.
A reporter flying overhead in a helicopter told state radio the volcano was spitting chunks of lava as big as a jeep.
The appearance of lava could suggest the eruption is moving into a less explosive phase.
Fewer explosions would mean less of the menacing ash that has drifted to the European continent, choking the upper atmosphere with tiny particles of glass and pulverized rock and leading authorities to shut their airspace over safety fears.
Police said there was almost no visibility near the glacier as ash saturated the air and covered agricultural fields with a layer of dust, which could be dangerous to animals if eaten.
Any pick-up in ash production could spell trouble for more populated areas of the country later in the week.
Weather forecasts show a shift in winds could cause ash to fall over Reykjavik for the first time since the volcano started to blow through the glacier.
The Civil Protection Department prepared plans for such an occurrence, which could include the closure of schools.
Iceland sits on a volcanic hotspot in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and has relatively frequent eruptions, though most happen in sparsely populated areas and pose little danger to people or property.