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This page was published on 18/05/2011
Published: 18/05/2011

   Special Collections

Published: 18 May 2011  
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Clipping wings when volcanoes erupt

Air transport officials launched a no-fly zone when Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano reared its ugly head last year. But was the move justified? Flying through an ash cloud would have been a dangerous manoeuvre, if not deadly. This is where a team of researchers comes in...

Eyjafjallajökull erupts © Shutterstock
Eyjafjallajökull erupts
©  Shutterstock

Scientists from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and the University of Iceland have created a protocol to give traffic authorities the help they need to quickly determine if planes should be grounded when ash threatens airspace safety. The results of the study are presented in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS).

Researchers say volcanic ash could put planes, and the lives of passengers, in grave danger. This is especially true if the particles are small enough to travel high and far. These particles could sandblast the bodies and windows of airplanes, and they could even melt inside jet engines.

Red flags went up when ash from the Eyjafjallajökull eruption materialised. The researchers say officials were right to ground all airplanes in April 2010. For her part, Professor Susan Stipp from the Nano-Science Centre of the University of Copenhagen says the team's latest method to quickly evaluate future ash is a key development.

'I was surprised to find nothing in the scientific literature or on the web about characterising ash to provide information for aviation authorities,' says Professor Stipp, one of the authors of the paper. 'So we decided to do something about it.'

The ash plume disrupted the flights of around 10 million travellers. This cost the industry around EUR 2.5 billion.

'Aviation authorities were sitting on a knife-edge at the centre of a huge dilemma,' Professor Stipp says. 'If they closed airspace unnecessarily, people, families, businesses and the economy would suffer, but if they allowed air travel, people and planes could be put at risk, perhaps with tragic consequences.'

Professor Stipp collaborated with Professor Siggi Gislason from the University of Iceland, who collected ash as samples to be assessed for the study. 'In the Nano-Science Centre at the University of Copenhagen, we have analytical facilities and a research team that are unique in the world for characterising natural nanoparticles and their reaction with air, water and oil.'

The researchers say assessments about safety can be made in less than 24 hours. Once the samples are received, experts can determine their toxicity levels in areas where people and animals live. Within 12 hours, they can estimate the risk of sandblasting on aircraft and assess the risk of fouling jet engines. In just a day, they can determine particle size and predict the spread of ash cloud.

'Some of the analytical instruments needed are standard equipment in Earth science departments and some are commonly used by materials scientists,' says Professor Stipp, who further noted, 'so with our protocol, aviation authorities ought to be able to get fast, reliable answers.'

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