Volcanoes’ message to airplanes: Ash-filled skies are not so friendly

In a matchup of Newt versus the volcano, it’s hard to tell who would win. Volatile, unpredictable, prone to outbursts at any moment — this might mean Gingrich or Grímsvötn.

But when Gingrich erupts, he just splatters words all over the place. When a real volcano erupts, it can splatter enough ash into the air to ground other candidates’ airplanes. And everybody else’s.

Two years ago, for instance, an unpronounceable Icelandic volcano temporarily closed Europe’s airspace for days. Since then scientists have gathered plenty of evidence that volcanoes are weapons of ash disruption.

When Eyjafjallajökull blew in April 2010, it vomited ash particles kilometers high. Weather patterns just happened to be right to carry that ash southeast, across the United Kingdom and continental Europe.

Aviation officials banned flying anywhere near the cloud. Ash can be sucked into jet engines, there to melt, harden into glass and shut the engines down. It’s a very real risk: In 1989, a KLM flight lost all four engines while approaching Anchorage’s airport because the plane had just flown through ash from nearby Mount Redoubt. The same thing happened to a British Airways flight in Indonesia in 1982, thanks to stuff belched from Mount Galunggung. In both cases, pilots eventually restarted the engines and landed safely, but not before dropping more than 10,000 feet. Volcanic ash, it seems, is even more powerful in aviation than Richard Branson.

But not even a billionaire airline entrepreneur knows what levels of ash are truly dangerous to jet engines. Eyjafjallajökull supposedly triggered an exercise in aviation prudence, but it was more like a guessing game about how much ash is acceptable to fly through. Airlines ordinarily don’t seem too concerned when you miss your connecting flight, but when hundreds of thousands of travelers get stranded for days, even customer service agents agree that they need to do something about it.

And that’s where science comes in — or not. In theory, government officials have science advisers to help out in times of crisis, like when researchers start playing around with mutant avian influenza or volcanic ash spreads across the sky. In practice, though, Europe didn’t have a clue about how to handle Eyjafjallajökull.

Especially the United Kingdom. With no active volcanoes within its borders, British officials basically ignored scientists’ warnings that eruptions in Iceland could be a problem. When Eyjafjallajökull went off, the government scrambled to respond, write Amy Donovan and Clive Oppenheimer of the University of Cambridge in an upcoming issue of Journal of Geophysical Research. As newspapers warned of chaos and catastrophe, scientists found themselves sidelined.

England might learn a thing or two from Iceland, where residents are practically volcanologists by birth, Donovan and Oppenheimer write. There, a police chief thinks nothing of picking up the phone and ringing a friend in the meteorological office, to better handle an evacuation or response to ash falling from the sky.

Two years on, things are a little better. For the first time, the United Kingdom’s National Risk Register now includes a section on volcanic hazards, citing an 18th century eruption that dwarfed Eyjafjallajökull. In 1783, the Icelandic volcano Laki spewed out lava for eight months straight, sending a toxic fog rolling across England and France. Some 10,000 people died then; if Laki erupted today about 140,000 people across Europe would die, University of Leeds scientists have estimated.

Officials are also flirting with raising the acceptable limits of ash for planes to stay in the air. If tests confirm these levels won’t shut down jet engines, then more planes could safely fly in the face of future eruptions.

Meanwhile, scientists are fine-tuning their computer simulations of how ash spreads once it gets high into the atmosphere. One of the big lessons of Eyjafjallajökull was that researchers did a pretty good job of forecasting where the ash was going to go, but not of telling how big the ash particles were and how densely clumped they might be in certain areas.

In other words, the stuff blowing out of volcanoes clumps up in places you don’t want it. Sort of like stuff blowing out of some political campaigns.

SN Prime March 19, 2012 | Vol. 2, No. 11

Alexandra Witze is a contributing correspondent for Science News. Based in Boulder, Colo., Witze specializes in earth, planetary and astronomical sciences.

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