Minimising air travel disruptions during volcanic eruptions

Published on: 13 April 2016

Professor Jim Haywood was the first to detect the levels of ash in the atmosphere following the 2010 Icelandic Eyjafjallajökul volcanic eruption, and has developed measurement systems to prevent airspace being closed for similar natural events in the future.

The eruption of Eyjafjallajökul resulted in vast amounts of volcanic ash being spewed into the atmosphere; in extreme concentrations this ash had the potential to jam aircraft engines. Without being able to accurately diagnose the concentration of ash, large amounts of airspace were closed.

The ensuing disruption to air travel from Eyjafjallajökul cost the airline industry an estimated £200 million a day in lost revenue. The subsequent displacement of airline passengers also cost the global economy an estimated several billion pounds.

Under the NERC funded Developing Resilience to Icelandic Volcanic Eruptions (DRIVE), Professor Haywood, a Professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Exeter and Research Fellow at the Met Office, aims to characterise the concentration and location of volcanic ash in the atmosphere with greater accuracy to reduce airspace closure in the future.

He uses using LIDAR technology to survey the location of the ash, sun photometers which measure the reduction in sunlight due to atmospheric particles, and the Met Office civil contingency aircraft (MOCCA) to carry instrumentation to measure the ash. Prof Haywood also holds joint patents for an electrostatic sensor known as Zeus, which is being trialled on FlyBe and British Airways aircraft. Using these tools Professor Haywood can assess the amount and location of ash in the atmosphere.

Professor Haywood said: "For future volcanic eruptions, having developed these different sensors we will be able to monitor and detect volcanic ash to a much, much greater degree of accuracy than we could for Eyjafjallajökul. This should lead to a reduction in the need to close airspace."

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