Ash Not Through Whom the Plane Flies, It Flies Through Thee

“Not again!” That was surely the reaction among recent travelers to/from airports in Ireland, Scotland, and even some parts of Northern England upon finding that, once again, flights had to be canceled for a brief period due to airborne ash from that Eyjafjallajökull Icelandic volcano. In the meantime, Scottish government officials issued predictably annoyed statements aimed at the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority for taking such action, just like on a larger scale it had been loud complaints from all across the affected area that had hastened the lifting of the continent-wide flight ban that paralyzed air travel within Europe for more than a week last month.

Central to the European complaints had been assertions that the flight-bans were too extreme, that the ash really did not pose enough of a danger to justify the considerable economic damage that the bans caused – after all, a number of airlines actually went ahead and flew test-flights on their own responsibility (manned only by crews and observers, of course) up into the grit-cloud and everything seemed fine. Now the Czech business newspaper Hospodářské noviny reports on how Europe’s scientific community is finally getting its act together with some direct research aimed at setting firm norms for when it’s safe to fly in volcano ash, and when it is not.

Basically, scientists are getting into planes themselves and flying into the ash – in particular, a team of researchers sponsored by the Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt, or the German Center for Air- and Spaceflight. That cloud may have moved on from the northern British Isles, but it’s still floating above the North Atlantic, and these scientists flew some 500km through it to make measurements and observe effects. They were even able to send someone to present their preliminary findings in Vienna to the 2010 General Assembly of the European Geosciences Union – things like rate of ash emission from the erupting volcano (3 tons of ash per second), speed of movement and disperson through the air, and the like.

It’s not at all a simple thing to try to figure out, as you might expect. As the DLR’s spokesman at the EGU congress, Dr. Ulrich Schumann, remarked, “A cloud of volcanic ash is not a passive phenomenon, it has its own internal dynamic.” But the ultimate point of the exercise is to build a better model to use to get an accurate picture of the safety situation for airline flights – and thereby of whether a flight-ban is justified or not – if there should be another eruption.

Or perhaps rather “when”: it seems that our friend Eyjafjallajökull is nowhere near ready to quiet down but is instead “intensifying.” Travelers be forewarned!

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