Sunday, May 9, 2010

Week 19: Eyjafjallajökull

Distribution Source: Multiple
Content Source: Multiple
Format: Audio & Video
Length: 1 hour +

Last week I promised another write-up on Warren Buffett and his annual shareholder conference. But with the unpronounceable Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull blowing smoke again, I decided to move on to a more explosive topic. For those of you who haven't heard, Eyjafjallajökull's first eruption since 1821 single-handedly shut down European air traffic in mid-April, costing airlines over $3 billion. In addition to forcing the cancellation of thousands of flights, the relatively small volcano prevented President Obama from attending the Polish President's funeral, forced FC Barcelona to take a 14 hour coach bus ride to their Champions League semi-final match in Milan, and most tragically prevented Miley Cyrus from attending her European film premiere.

As you may have noticed from my post on grizzlies, the more I learn about nature the more I respect and fear its power. Volcanoes - or the "pimples of the earth" as my girlfriend calls them - are a perfect example of this awesome power. And Iceland, a country of just over 300,000 people, has plenty of them (35 active volcanoes, to be exact). But this particular volcano has literally wreaked havoc on millions of travelers. Seismically, the eruption is quite small, but it has produced an unusually large amount of fine ash. Apparently the chemical interaction between cold fluid (ice) and hot fluid (magma) produces more explosions, which in turn fragment the material being spewed out of the volcano. The more fragmented the material, the lighter it is and the easier it can be carried with the wind, in this case thousands of miles away to continental Europe and over international aviation corridors.

Why does volcanic ash cause problems for big, sturdy airplanes? The ash clogs important sensors and can prevent pneumatics from working well, but most dangerous is the detrimental effect on turbine blades in the engine. The hottest part of a jet engine is 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit, while volcanic ash melts at about 1,000 degrees. When the ash melts, it turns into molten glass, which coats itself onto the engine blades. These blades are made with extreme precision, so even a slight change in their physics will likely shut down the engine. The only way to fix this is to actually turn off the engine, allow for cold air to shoot into it (thereby blowing off the glass coating), and then re-start the engine. Even for Captain Sully this is a dangerous mid-flight proposition. This actually happened in 1982 when a British Airways flight had all four of its engines shut down simultaneously after flying through volcanic ash spewed from Mount Galunggung in Indonesia. Remarkably, the crew was able to re-start all engines and nobody was hurt.

Given all the risks, the European travel authorities erred on the side of safety in April, effectively shutting down transatlantic and European travel for days. As bad as this was, there is absolutely no reason to believe that the worst is behind us. Most volcanoes erupt for only a day or two, but some take weeks, months or even years to become dormant. Unfortunately, the last time Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 1821, it did not stop until 1823. While this week's ongoing ash-spewing has not grounded as many flights as in late April, a simple shift of the fickle trans-Atlantic winds could change that. What if Eyjafjallajökull goes for another year? There is literally no backup plan. All the incredible aviation technology and innovation of the past decades will not be enough to overcome a large cloud of volcanic ash.

More ominous is the prospect of Katla, the much bigger sister-volcano to Eyjafjallajökull, erupting. Every documented eruption of Eyjafjallajökull has occurred in tandem with a Katla eruption. And Katla has historically blown every 40-80 years; its last eruption was in 1918, making it well overdue. It has been showing sings of unrest since 1999. And Katla is scary. Ten times more powerful than Eyjafjallajökull, it is the volcano most feared by the locals. Iceland's president, Olafur Grimsson, recently said: "If Katla blows up, the current eruption will resemble a small rehearsal." It is estimated that the amount of water that could flood Iceland per second if Katla erupted would be six times the water in the entire Amazon river! The last eruption extended the coast by 5 km due to lahoric flood deposits. The volcano's current repose is its longest on record. It is simply a matter of time before it erupts...

While this may seem like a gloomy post, it isn't intended to be. I chose to research and write about the Icelandic volcanoes because of the perspective they give, on many levels. For one, it dates the extremely recent advent of commercial aviation. The last major Icelandic eruptions were not that long ago (not even 100 years), yet they preceded most human air travel. The story also highlights the extremely fragile systems we often take for granted. Just like it was a given that your stock-trading platform would function properly until last Thursday's market fiasco, it was expected that you could easily find a flight from New York to London. But this April not even the President of the most powerful country in the world could make the trip, and all because of that pesky, unpronounceable Icelandic volcano.


  1. Enjoyed reading your clear and entertaining explanation of why volcanic ash clouds are such a major threat to the health of our mammoth jetliners (and the passengers within...). I find it surprising and shocking that -- apparently -- there is no reliable way to detect such clouds. Inadvertent flight through volcanic ash clouds can occur because they are difficult to see and cannot be detected by radar. Because of their small size ash particles do not return an echo to the onboard weather radars of commercial airliners. Even when flying in daylight and somewhat visible ash clouds may be interpreted as normal clouds formed by water vapour...A recently updated pilot's manual advised that the following might "help recognize" flight through a volcanic ash cloud: "Acrid odor similar to electrical smoke," "St. Elmo's fire," "Dust and smell in the cockpit," and "Rapid onset of engine problems" !

    F.S. Marzano, G.Vulpiani and W.I.Rose wrote a detailed paper on key issues related to the detection of volcanic ash ("Microphysical Characterization of Microwave Radar Reflectivity Due to Volcanic Ash Clouds").


  2. Here's a write-up from the US gov't on volcanic ash - amazing how small these particles can be:

    "Small jagged pieces of rocks, minerals, and volcanic glass the size of sand and silt (less than 2 millimeters (1/12 inch) in diameter) erupted by a volcano are called volcanic ash. Very small ash particles can be less than 0.001 millimeters (1/25,000th of an inch) across. Volcanic ash is not the product of combustion, like the soft fluffy material created by burning wood, leaves, or paper. Volcanic ash is hard, does not dissolve in water, is extremely abrasive and mildly corrosive, and conducts electricity when wet.

    Volcanic ash is formed during explosive volcanic eruptions. Explosive eruptions occur when gases dissolved in molten rock (magma) expand and escape violently into the air, and also when water is heated by magma and abruptly flashes into steam. The force of the escaping gas violently shatters solid rocks. Expanding gas also shreds magma and blasts it into the air, where it solidifies into fragments of volcanic rock and glass. Once in the air, wind can blow the the tiny ash particles tens to thousands of kilometers away from the volcano."

  3. What we have here is a nomenclature problem.

    If Eskimos can have multiple names for different types of snow, perhaps it is time to develop terms to distinguish between the "soft,fluffy wood ash" and the abrasive, corrosive, electrically conductive volcanic ash that can disable a modern fly-by-wire airliner (with "glass"-computer cockpit) in four or five different simultaneous ways.

    VASH? Maybe?