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Experts clash over volcanic ash

The inadequacy of technology to provide definitive answers about the threat of volcanic ash has become a central concern for scientists as authorities step up efforts to restore air travel.

Ash clouds from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajoekull volcano have been floating across most of northern and central Europe over the past five days with all non-emergency flights prohibited from leaving or entering UK airspace until at least 1300hrs tomorrow.

But EU transport ministers are only now holding emergency talks by video conference on how to ease the air travel crisis.

The International Air Transport Association has criticised the way European authorities have handled the situation so far, saying that it is ‘incredible’ that Europe’s transport ministers have taken so long to organise a teleconference.

Giovanni Bisignani, IATA’s director general, said: ‘We are far enough into this crisis to express our dissatisfaction on how governments have managed it - with no risk assessment, no consultation, no coordination, and no leadership.’

Leading airlines, who claim to be losing more than £130m a day as a result of the disruptions, are urging the civil aviation authorities to open the skies after having conducted trials of their own.

The problem centres around the fact that there is no way to accurately model ash plumes and understand what level of ash is safe to fly through. So far, it appears much of the decisions being made have been based on scientific guesswork.

Dr Craig Underwood from Surrey University said: ‘Aircraft routinely carry radar to check for weather but the trouble is the particles of ash are too fine for the radars to detect so pilots can find themselves suddenly in a plume without any warning.’

‘There is no known safe level of ash to fly through,’ he added: ’It’s all about the level of risk you want to take. Perhaps it would be possible to fly in some parts of it but you just don’t know what the density and the effects will be.’

The COBRA civil contingencies committee of UK cabinet ministers is also in meetings today to consider the situation. Reports so far suggest that Gordon Brown will be sending three Royal Navy ships to bring stranded Britons home from Spain.

Readers' comments (23)

  • You should send this article to all the reporters at the main news outlets. They keep repeating certain facts without helping to make sense of them. Your explanation of radar's inability to detect the volcanic ash cloud offers us a little more detail than we are getting elsewhere.

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  • We could all do with more engineering insight from engine manufacturers regarding the problem. They must have run experiments on sending ash into a jet engine?

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  • As a private pilot, I went flying on Friday, having been told that I couldn't get an instrument clearance. No problem: I decided to use my eyes instead. It was surprising to start smelling Sulphur at about 3000 feet and there may have been some slight evidence of paint abrasion on the leading edge of the propellor. The major problem to piston engines caused by low levels of ash in the air, according to the exremely scant information I've been able to find from manufacturers, is increased engine wear rates caused by oil contamination. Dense ash clouds could cause air filter clogging and power loss.

    The situation for gas turbines is much more serious: silica melts in the hottest parts of the engine, potentially clogging cooling channels and leading to localised hotspots in the engine. Without sensors on each and every aircraft, to measure and monitor specific damage in real time, I wouldn't be happy to be a passenger on a plane whose flight is justified solely by commercial interests and guesswork.

    More data please!

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  • Very informative and not driven by greed! great article Ellie

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  • Given the intrinsic nature of the risks asociated with air travel it is imperative that we err on the safety first side. The fact that so many people are stranded as a result of rounded air operations is a tough reality we have to accept as a result of this act of god. Posturing by any on how it should have been handled by governments is to no avail. The reality is ash clouds and aero engines do not mix well. Safe flying everyone!

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  • There seems to be fair agreement about effects of fine glassy ash on turbo-jet engines, see for instance:

    FOBN Reference : FLT_OPS – OPS_ENV – SEQ 06 – REV 01 – SEP. 2006

    Flight Operations Briefing Notes Operating Environment Volcanic Ash Awareness

    By Airbus Customer Services Flight Operations Support and Services

    Can someone explain how the engines can be re-started, as reported, after becoming covered at the turbine end with re-solidified glass, and stopping?

    The bigger problems are, predicting and monitoring this natural/meteorological effect, and humankind's gross over dependence on travel in general and flying in particular. The latter should be a worthy caution, to have a “plan B” for as many applications as possible, especially the impossibility of continuing mass “eating the wind” flying on its present scale.

    A good illustration is the resurrection of a ferry service from Norway to Scotland

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  • I can understand that while airlines are forced to stay grounded a lot of money is being lost. However, will this be a big chance type of thingy? Is anyone seriously thinking about risking their lives to get to point B from point A? The damages even if they are slight at first will require more and more replacements given rise to much higher air fares. Why are we always in such a hurry to get someplace else? Amazing culture we have today. I wonder if those who are willing to take the chance with flying through volcanic ash, are going to the gambling centers around the world to do some more gambling? That might be the ultimate gamble. Will money concerns win?

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  • Given the quoted £200 million daily cost, and potential to last months, can we find an engineering solution at source? Release magma pressure by drilling big hole with explosives or fit enormous tarpaulin air filter or chemical/water spray to increase clumping of ash particles? Seed clouds to cause rain?

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  • We investigate temperature at molecular levels and employ the most advanced infrared applications in the world, can we help?

    I have seen some infrared in the area but scientists are missing important temperature data because the infrared application exceeds their expertise.

    Particulate in the air didn't stop us from tracking forest fires through the smoke or imaging groundwater from the air for biologists. We simply gave professionals the ability to see their temperature objectives.

    We lecture academia where otherwise they are blind to temperature and consult objectively for many.

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  • The ammount of time and effort taken to design test and verify the engineering systems on an aircraft before it is placed into service is impressive considering the range of expertise invoved and the combined knowledge of so many people. It is this carefully planned and systematic approach to gather knowledge that results in the reliability and safety we require. This effort seems to be 'thrown out' when we hear of airlines flying into dust clouds 'to see what happens'. Or have I missed something here?

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