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New method helps reduce the impact of volcanic ash on air travel

A new type of camera developed by volcanologists at the University of Manchester can be used to measure the flow and speed of ash falling out of a volcanic plume. This method could help reduce the dangers, health risks, and travel impacts of ash plumes during a volcanic eruption.

“Models of ash dispersion are key to forecasting the concentrations of ash during an eruption, which ultimately determine which airspace is closed,” said study co-author Professor Mike Burton. “Our research helps to measure the dynamics of ash fallout during an eruption. This gives us new insights into volcanic ash dynamics, providing an important step towards improved models of ash dispersion.”

While ash is often considered to be a secondary danger when compared to volcano hazards such as lava and pyroclastic flow, ash can have a major impact on human lives and infrastructure. Heavy ash fall can cause buildings to collapse, and also poses a serious threat to electrical, water, and transportation networks, particularly air travel.

Professor Burton explained, “Volcanic ash is a primary product of an explosive volcanic eruption which generally poses a threat to human health and infrastructure.”

“The Icelandic eruption in 2010 highlighted to the whole world that ash-rich volcanic eruptions can have a major impact on the global economy through airspace closures designed to minimize the risk of jet engine failure due to ash clogging.”

At the Santa Maria volcano in Guatemala, the team used the camera to measure a series of explosions in the Santiaguito Lava Dome. The “AshCam,” which is the first camera of its kind in the world, enabled the researchers to measure how ash particles interact with sunlight and how they change the polarization of sunlight.

Study co-author and PhD Researcher Benjamin Esse explained, “AshCam is small, lightweight and relatively cheap, making it ideal for use in volcanic environments where larger, more expensive equipment is unable to be deployed.”

“This is an exciting development as it offers volcanologists a tool that allows them to easily measure the dynamics of ash plumes using only sunlight. The results from these measurements can be used to inform ash dispersal models, potentially improving their accuracy and effectiveness in mitigating the risks posed by ash plumes.”

The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Image Credit: Benjamin Esse, The University of Manchester

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