Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Maybe we should have been monitoring volcanoes after all

Icelandic volcano eruption complete with ash lava and lightning
Flying an airplane into volcanic ash is probably a bad idea. 
Image Credit: Marco Fulle (Stromboli Online)/ Astronomy Picture of the Day

One year ago, volcano monitoring was put forward as an example of wasteful government spending by a prominent politician.  Never mind that the amount of money we are talking, $15.2 million dollars, is only one thousandth of one percent of the federal budget deficit, let's come forward in time a year to the eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallaj√∂kull volcano.  Ash from this volcanic eruption grounded airplanes across Europe, costing airlines nearly two billion dollars.

Why were so many airplanes grounded?  Volcanic ash harms airplane engines.  This page from Boeing describes many of the near-disasters caused by volcanic ash.  We aren't talking about a single incident, but several serious situaitons.  So, when ash from the volcano drifted over Europe, flights were grounded to prevent potential crashes from ash damage.  Now that the ash danger has abated, the finger pointing has begun.  Airlines are blaming governments for being to cautious, governments are blaming airlines for being to risky, and travelers are stuck in the middle with the unexpected costs of an extra week or two of "vacation", plus hassles of trying to get home. 

One of the big reasons for this calamity is that we don't have good, hard, scientific data on what types of ash conditions are dangerous.  Certainly flying right through the eruption column would be deadly, and flying in clear air is safe.  So where is the dividing line?

Volcanic eruptions are no place to be testing these limits.  It would be ludicrous to ask pilots to risk their lives to fly airplanes in various ash conditions to see what happens.  (cue sarcasm) Oh, whatever could be done?

Perhaps rather than arguing in the media, pointing fingers, and guessing at what is and isn't safe, we could try this little thing called a scientific experiment.  Perhaps we could put aircraft engines in a test chamber and inject volcanic ash with known density, particle size, trajectory, and so on, and see what happens in that controlled environment.  We would then be able to map out under what conditions airplane engines (and other flight systems) can be operated safely, and under what conditions airplanes cannot operate safely.   We could then take that knowledge in the field and see what types of information (satellite photos, wind speed, and so on) are needed to determine if the ash cloud from a given volcano is safe or not.  Then we could test this in the field using unmanned aircraft to see if what we might call "safe" and "dangerous" really fit those monikers.  Finally, the next time a volcano erupts in heavily traveled airspace, we can apply all of this and minimize the disruptions to the airline industry.

Believe it or not, we have all of the necessary facilities and expertise to do these experiments.  Perhaps we could make use of the fact that one of the A's in NASA  stands for "Aeronautics", meaning that NASA has some fine testing facilities and test aircraft.  The US Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have more than a few scientists familiar with volcanoes and weather.  The combination of these existing organizations, brain power, and facilities could efficiently attack this problem!

There's just one problem.  Money.  Research costs money, and it ain't cheap.  We could be talking one or two billion dollars (or more) to solve the volcanic ash problem.  But this one volcanic eruption cost at least that much money, and probably much more when the entire economic effect is considered. It doesn't take a PhD to do the cost-benefit analysis involved here.  To my eyes, I'd say this expense is worthwhile.  We could even be responsible and pay for this research by levying a $2/flight segment surcharge on each plane ticket.  I'd be much happier paying $2 to make sure my plane didn't crash due to volcanic ash than paying $45 to take my carry-on on board.

Oh, but I forgot.  Studying volcanoes is wasteful government spending.  My bad.

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