Ash confusion highlights importance of research

Features Editor
The Engineer

We can only see a small slice of the sky from The Engineer’s offices, but nonetheless it’s usually criss-crossed with contrails. Not for the past week, though. At 11am, we’ve just seen the very first distant white streak across our little patch of blue since UK airspace was closed owing to the ash plume from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano.

The surprise reopening of the airspace last night was down to a number of factors, it seems; the brinksmanship of BA chairman Willie Walsh in allowing a number of London-bound flights to take off while airports were still closed has received some press coverage this morning. But the overriding factor was the test-flights and analysis of results by airlines and the Met Office, which appear to have established safe corridors through which airliners can fly under guidance of air traffic control.

But some things haven’t changed. It’s still not possible for airliners to detect ash with their radars, which are designed to detect moist clouds, not dry particulates. It’s still certain that if a jet engine flies through volcanic ash, the minerals will melt inside the engine, coating the turbines with glassy material, which can choke them off. And there’s still a lot of guesswork associated with the safe levels of ash. Nobody knew what a safe level of ash was before Eyjafjallajokull started to erupt, and it’s unlikely that knowledge has advanced that much in the intervening days. The reason for that is fairly simple. Nobody had done the research.

It seems that extensive studies on the effect of volcanic ash on jet engines have been put off for years, because aircraft-affecting volcanic eruptions are rare events and other research was given higher priorities. But rare events can have catastrophic effects, as we’ve seen over the past few days. It’s almost certain that research will now start. The activity of Iceland’s volcanoes, we’re told, is periodic; they become active every 50-80 years. That means that the last time they were spewing ash, there were no jet airliners.

Now, the area potentially affected by ash is swarming with aircraft, each one carrying hundreds of people, and there isn’t the airspace to divert all those flights away from the area affected by volcanic plumes. Think of the consequences of just one of those planes falling out of the sky. Anyone berating the decision by Air Traffic Control to close airspace as ‘over-cautious’ might do well to consider what might have happened if planes had been allowed to fly. If we want to keep flying above Europe and across the Atlantic — especially if Icelandic eruptions might be more frequent in coming decades — then we obviously have to know how we can do it safely, and when it’s not safe to fly at all.

This isn’t the first rare but devastating natural phenomenon we’ve seen this year; the Haiti earthquake saw massive destruction, partly because there was a dearth of information on how buildings in Port-au-Prince would react to vibration. That event caused catastrophic loss of life. We need to consider the funding of research into the effects of natural phenomena on technology and construction, no matter how rare these phenomena are. Human life is at stake, and we need a better understanding of the risks.