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From earth to sky for aircraft safety

Press release issued: 6 June 2002

Media release
From earth to sky for aircraft safety

Research into hazards to aircraft from volcanic ashclouds during explosive eruptions has been recognised by the "Fondation Belge de la Vocation" (FBV). Dr Gerald Ernst, Lecturer in Earth Sciences at Bristol University, has been awarded the 2002 "Golden Clover Prize" (Trefle d'Or).

The Golden Clover Prize is the most prestigious award made by the FBV. This is only the second time the award has been given to a Belgian for his achievements. As part of the prize, Dr Ernst will receive 25,000 euros for his research.

Dr Ernst, his collaborators and the world-wide Volcanic Ash Advisory Centres (VAACs) have become increasingly concerned that the risk to air traffic in Europe and over the North Atlantic from large eruptions in Iceland has not been fully considered and that we are not ready for the next large eruption from Iceland.

Since 1980, there have been around 250 reported incidents where aeroplanes have had to be re-routed and approximately 100 incidents where aeroplanes have flown into ashclouds and been damaged as a result. About 20 of these encounters were very serious and in two cases the aeroplane, with passengers, almost crashed. The total cost of these 100 ash-encounter accidents exceeds one billion dollars.

Dr Ernst's work focuses on developing theoretical models and laboratory experiments to have a better understanding of ash dispersal and analysing field data for deposits produced by explosive eruptions as well as satellite images of volcanic ashclouds. His work also involves combining the understanding of the dynamics and meteorology of volcanic ashclouds.

Dr Ernst said: 'Large eruptions in Iceland happen, on average, two to three times per century. The next large eruption, from a volcano called Katla, is overdue. Katla last erupted explosively in 1918 and it has had large eruptions, on average, every 50 years or so.

'The most recent large explosive eruption in Iceland was in 1947 (the Hekla volcano) when air traffic was not what it is today, and when jet aircrafts did not exist. There was also an even larger explosive eruption from a third Icelandic volcano in 1875 (the Askja volcano). Its ashcloud passed over Britain and dispersed ash up to 2,000 km away from Iceland over Scandinavia.'

'It is possible that when the next eruption occurs, aeroplanes could encounter the ashcloud and crash. It is also possible that the eruption could lead to a shutdown of air operations over the North Atlantic and Europe or part of it for one to four days.'

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Copyright: 2001 The University of Bristol, UK
Updated: Thursday, 06-Jun-2002 10:31:15 BST

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