Can Airlines Learn to Handle Volcanic Ash?

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A cloud of smoke and ash is seen over the Grimsvoetn volcano on Iceland on May 21, 2011. AFP / Getty Images

It was a little more than a year ago that Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted, spewing thick ash high into the atmosphere. The volcano itself—aside from giving copy editors and news readers headaches—did relatively little damage in Iceland itself, but the ash cloud spread across much of Europe. Because volcanic ash can wreck havoc with a modern jet plane’s engines, air travel throughout much of Europe was essentially shut down for more than a week, causing damages of at least $5 billion and inconveniencing millions of travelers. It was, as we called it in TIME magazine, the “cloud that closed a continent.”

This week has seen a redux. Iceland’s Grimsvotn volcano began erupting on May 21, sending more ash into the air. That has led to the closure of hundreds of flights in Britain, Scotland and northern Germany over the past few days, with airports blocked by the ash. Although the ash cloud is clearing and European authorities believe that air travel should be back to normal soon, the Grimsvotn eruption is another reminder of how easily globalization can be interrupted by the vagaries of the natural world.

But it’s worth asking at near the mid-point of a year that has already seen devastating weather: is there anything we can do to limit our vulnerability? The disruption from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano was so widespread in part because air travel officials essentially put a blanket ban on flights within the ash cloud—even though there is growing evidence that planes may be able to weather some exposure to volcanic ash. From the BBC:

In April 2010 the ash cloud from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano triggered the biggest aviation shutdown in Europe since World War II. It was an enormously costly “one-size-fits-all” approach that put passenger safety first, but without measuring the different degrees of risk.

This time the EU has activated a new crisis cell, bringing together experts from the European Commission, the European air traffic controllers (Eurocontrol), the aviation industry and airports. The European Aviation Crisis Co-ordination Cell (EACCC) is responsible for co-ordinating the response to this and any other air traffic crisis affecting Europe.

Instead of a blanket ban, officials are now using new guidelines to evaluate various levels of ash contamination, and airlines themselves are largely making the choice about whether or not to fly. Still, European air space remains a bit of a mess—the European Union is a patchwork of 27 different national air traffic zones, and each is able to impose flying bans on its own. And some airlines are unhappy about limitations on their ability to fly—both British Airways and the budget carrier Ryanair performed their own test flights through the ash cloud without significant problems:

Ryanair yesterday said it dispatched a test flight from Glasgow Prestwick to see if the ash posed a danger. The 90-minute flight flew to Inverness, on to Aberdeen and down to Edinburgh – all of which were said to be in a red zone of “high ash concentration”.

“Exactly as we predicted there was no evidence of any volcanic ash material whatsoever,” the company’s chief executive Michael O’Leary said. “There’s no cloud over Scotland. There’s no dust on the airframe or engines or the wings.”

Grimsvotn will stop erupting well before the debate is settled over just how dangerous the ash cloud really is. But European air travel operators—and those from the rest of the world—would be wise to figure out a unified response to future eruptions because Grimsvotn isn’t likely to be the last. Iceland has even larger volcanoes that have suffered massive eruptions in the past. Laki, one of Iceland’s biggest volcanoes, erupted in 1783 and spewed so much ash into the atmosphere that average temperatures throughout the Northern Hemisphere dropped by about 1 C. (Sulfuric ash reflects sunlight, leading to atmospheric cooling.)  If Laki were to erupt again with such force, it could block air travel throughout Europe for months—which is one more reason for air travel officials to figure out a better way to regulate the real risk from volcanic ash. Natural disasters will happen, and our globalized world is inherently vulnerable to such disruptions. We can’t stop disasters, but we can control our response to them.