Research aircraft to fly to the edge of volcanic plume over Britain
15 April 2010
The Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull, located about 75 miles east of Reykjavik and which began erupting on 20 March this year, is causing chaos at UK airports as a massive plume of ash is blown across northern Britain.
The Natural Environment Research Council's (NERC) Airborne Research & Survey Facility (ARSF) is flying its Dornier 228 research aircraft this evening. Piloted by Captain Carl Joseph with co-pilot David Davies, the aircraft will fly a small research team led by Dr Guy Gratton, Head of the Facility for Airborne Atmospheric Measurements (FAAM), to the edge of the volcanic plume over Britain. Using specially adapted research instrumentation, the team will record data relating to the height, density and position of the plume. It is expected that their findings will feed into Met Office dispersion models and forecasts and will aid advice to the airports, as well as improving future forecasts.
Peter Purcell, Head of NERC Airborne Research Facilities, said, 'The Dornier 228 is an extremely adaptable and capable aircraft. The highly professional crew were able to reconfigure the aircraft at very short notice to undertake this mission. The instrumentation will allow the crew to safely monitor the atmospheric conditions as the plume is approached.'
Dr Sue Loughlin, who leads the Volcanology team at the British Geological Survey (BGS), said, 'Ash has been reported at 55,000 feet over northern Scotland. Where it goes now depends on wind speed and direction. The last eruption of Eyjafjallajökull lasted about two years, and so there may be more similar events.'
Satellite image of the erupting volcano in Iceland, taken by NASA's Terra satellite at 11.39UTC, 15 April 2010, and prepared from data received at the NERC-funded Satellite Receiving Station in Dundee.
Click on image for a high-resolution version (259KB)
NERC's National Centre for Atmospheric Sciences (NCAS) is also tracking the plume. Professor Stephen Mobbs, Director of NCAS, said, 'NCAS scientists use the NOAA HYSPLIT model to track the dispersion of the volcanic plume. This tracks the trajectories of atmospheric pollutants from sources using the observed wind fields as interpreted by global weather forecasting models. The latest predictions suggest that volcanic material emitted from Iceland between 12 noon and midnight yesterday will be arriving over the UK this afternoon.'
'This eruption on Eyjafjallajökull began on the north-east flank where there is no ice and it was very small. The volcano is now erupting from the central crater which is under the ice cap. It is melting the ice, causing significant flooding around the volcano.'
The interaction of magma with water has created a plume of volcanic ash and gas over 10 km high, which has spread out and been carried by winds eastwards towards the Faroe Islands, Norway, and northern Scotland.
The ash plume contains large amounts of microscopic particles of hard volcanic rock which, although it does not show up on weather radar, can have serious affects on aircraft flying through it. The Dornier 228 is able to fly where commercial airlines cannot, due to its ability to 'see' the volcanic plume via the research instruments on board.
Dr Guy Gratton, Head of FAAM, explains: 'Because the ash is electrically conductive, it can cause thunder and lightning, or cause St Elmo's Fire - an effect where metal parts of the aeroplane start to glow. The airspeed indicator - which is essential for safe flight - can be adversely affected making control of the aeroplane very difficult. Dust is also likely to enter the aeroplane causing sulphurous smells and haze.'
As they touch the aeroplane, and particularly the engines, the hard rock particles can wear away the aircraft skin, windscreens, and engine components. At the high temperatures inside a jet engine the particles can potentially block fuel nozzles or even melt and then solidify in other parts of the engine causing mishandling or engine stoppage (called a "flame-out").
NERC Press Office
Natural Environment Research Council
Polaris House, North Star Avenue
Swindon, SN2 1EU
Tel: 01793 411561
Mob: 07917 557215
1. The Dornier is operated by the NERC Airborne Research & Survey Facility, which is based in Gloucestershire. It is being deployed under the Civil Contingencies Procedures agreed with the Cabinet office.
More information about ARSF.
2. The International Civil Aviation Organisation published volcanic ash contingency plans in 2005, which are currently being following by the United Kingdom and other countries in response to the eruption at the Eyjafjallajökull Glacier in Iceland. This has particularly included refusal to accept any "Instrument Flight Rules" flight plans - the effect of which is to effectively close the United Kingdom to all commercial air traffic entering or leaving; the UK military has issued similar warnings to home-based military aeroplanes. At present the airports themselves are technically unaffected, but this may change as the dust cloud descends, particularly since the dust may contaminate runways making aircraft stopping distances unpredictable.
Press release: 17/10
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