Reducing volcanic ash impact on travel

A volcano.

Volcanologists from the University of Manchester in the UK have conducted new research that could help to reduce the effect of volcanic ash on air travel, as well as human health and other critical infrastructure.

The 2010 eruption of Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull caused widespread chaos, with airports closed, flights grounded and passengers stranded in multiple countries, with many having to – or trying to – call upon their travel insurers for help. “[The eruption] highlighted to the whole world that ash-rich volcanic eruptions can have a major impact on the global economy through air space closures designed to minimise the risk of jet engine failure due to ash clogging,” said Professor Mike Burton, Chair in Volcanology at the university.

The research, published in Scientific Reports, makes use of a special camera developed at the university, which measures the speed and flow of ash as it emerges from a volcanic plume. The ‘AshCam’ allowed researchers to measure how particles of ash interact with sunlight, changing its polarisation – through this method, the potential path of an ash cloud can be projected, and models developed to deal with the issue more efficiently by only closing airports where necessary, rather than opting for widespread precautionary closures.

“Models of ash dispersion are key to forecasting the concentrations of ash during an eruption, which ultimately determine which air space is closed,” said Professor Burton. “Our research helps to measure the dynamics of ash fallout during an eruption, giving us new insights into volcanic ash dynamics and providing an important step towards improved models of ash dispersion.”

Usefully, the AshCam is small, light and relatively inexpensive, which makes it ideal for use in dangerous volcanic environments into which it may not be practical or safe to take larger, more expensive items of equipment.