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Iceland’s Grimsvotn volcanic ash particles – bigger and therefore safer!

13 June 2011 No Comment

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When Iceland’s Grimsvotn volcano erupted on 21 May, I’m sure many of us gritted our teeth thinking about the likely devastation the event might have on any upcoming foreign travel. Away on business in China at the time it was certainly on my mind as I pondered the journey back to the UK! It is hard to forget the chaos caused by the Eyjafjallajokull eruption only last year.

However, scientists had quickly taken up arms to analyse the particle size of the ash carried in the 2010 volcanic plume against their true potential to down aircraft. This meant that when Grimsvotn elected to belch out yet another cloud of volcanic particles, the airlines could get hold of the data they needed to push for qualified decisions. The result – far fewer flight disruptions.

In volcanic ash, smaller is deadlier!

In November 2010, my colleague Steve Ward-Smith published a fascinating blog; When is it safe to fly a plane through volcanic ash? As he notes in his article, it is the presence of fine ash in a volcanic plume that makes it particularly dangerous to aircraft.

Luckily, as can be clearly seen in the beautiful images published by Aberdeen University, the particles being spewed out by the Grimsvotn volcano turned out to be much larger than those in the Eyjafjallajokull ash cloud. This meant they were less likely to travel far before falling to the ground.

With respect to last year’s difficulties, a scientific study published last month outlined research from the University of Copenhagen and the University of Iceland which confirmed that the ash particles from the early part of the Eyjafjallajokull eruption had been especially abrasive, suggesting that they did therefore pose a very real threat to aircraft.

I don’t know about you, but I’m glad that this type of research enables informed decisions. The last thing I would like is for airlines to decide it was safe to fly simply because they couldn’t afford not to!