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Diary of a volcanologist

Updated Wednesday 26th May 2010

Dr Dave Rothery provides an insight into being a volcanologist when a volcano brings Europe to a halt.

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Scientists have a moral duty to help the news media report science stories clearly and correctly. A way in which we can help is writing notes for dissemination by the Science Media Centre and our own university press offices. As someone who teaches The Open University’s short course on volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis, I feel competent to pass relevant comment on aspects of any of those three, though my research experience is on volcanoes.

The first few months of 2010 were exceptional but not unprecedented, with a devastating earthquake in Haiti in January, a Pacific-wide tsunami alert in February, and an ash cloud from Eyjafjallajökull that grounded much of Europe’s air traffic for six days in April. While far from oblivious to the human tragedy, especially in Haiti, my students have not been slow to comment on how lucky they have been that such events occurred during their period of study. ‘Nothing if not topical!’ was one comment.

My students and I had already been keeping an eye on swarms of small earthquakes under Eyjafjallajökull for several weeks, when the eruption began on 20 March. The lava emerged at the edge of the ice cap rather than beneath it, and so it did not immediately cause the dangerous melt-water flood that we had feared. We breathed a collective sigh of relief, and enjoyed the pretty webcam images of what one of my Icelandic colleagues described as a ‘touristic eruption’.

A webcam image of the Eyjafjallajokull eruption taken at 06:14 BST 17 April Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: MILA
A webcam image of the Eyjafjallajokull eruption taken at 06:14 BST 17 April 2010
[Used with permission from mila]

On 14 April, when the eruption suddenly relocated itself to the centre of the icecap, I had already fed the Science Media Centre my thoughts on an earthquake that had happened overnight in western China, which killed hundreds of people. I left Iceland as there were other colleagues who could comment with more authority than I on the expected melt-water floods.

Those floods did happen, but as most people know the eruption became extremely explosive, projecting fragmented magma (volcanic ‘ash’) to at least 30,000 feet. The wind was from the northwest, and within hours an ash cloud was over Scotland and spreading further south and east. Flights were grounded, and the news media wanted every volcanologist that they could find. As a former leader of an international commission on using satellite images to monitor volcanoes, I was soon in heavy demand. I fielded calls from various radio and newspaper journalists, before being rushed by taxi to BBC Television Centre to appear live on Newsround, followed a few minutes later by World Service news and then a taxi dash to Heathrow where I joined the BBC News Channel team. At least a dozen other camera crews from all over the world were reporting from the same vantage point overlooking the silent runway. However I had a bag of volcanic ash with me, so I like to think my interviews were a little more graphic than what the others could report!

On that day, there were two things everyone wanted to know: why volcanic ash is dangerous for aircraft (I was able to speak about events over Indonesia in 1982 and Alaska in 1989 when jumbo jets had lost their engines as a result of flying through ash), and why this eruption was sending ash high into the sky.

Interview recorded on 19 April 2010

I got home shortly before midnight, and things did not quieten down until the ‘no fly’ ban was relaxed five days later. For a while, we volcanologists found ourselves to be celebrities, and camera crews came to us if we could not get to them. Twice in three days I recorded interviews for a cameraman who was assigned to me as soon as he had finished with the Prime Minister.

Through all this, I sensed a keenness to be told just what was going on inside the volcano. Naturally, journalists tried to find ‘new angles’ to enliven their reports as the days dragged by. One wanted me to describe the dangers of working on erupting volcanoes, hoping perhaps I would recount something dramatic such as what Piers Brosnan’s character lived through in the movie Dante’s Peak. I was usually asked if I agreed with the flight ban. Every time I said that I did but that the eruption was weakening and eventually flights would surely be allowed.

Blame for the immense disruption and economic loss has subsequently been directed towards the London Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre (VAAC), entirely unfairly in my view. Their job was dictated by a pre-existing International Civil Aviation Organisation protocol declaring it unsafe to fly through any airborne volcanic ash. Responding to this, they tracked and predicted the ash cloud very well. The airline industry and engine manufacturers had hitherto declined to declare a ‘safe’ tolerance for ash, and it was only the pressure of enormous financial losses that they belatedly, and in a great hurry, made some tests that led to a threshold of 2 milligrammes of ash per cubic metre being defined. Once this had been done, it was possible to reopen the skies over most of Europe, because by then the cloud was more diffuse than this. If they had done this study in advance, then my guess is that most flight restrictions would have ended several days sooner.

Official Volcanic Ash Graphic dated 15 April  Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Met Office Official Volcanic Ash Graphic dated 15 April 2010

[Crown Copyright material is reproduced under Class License Number C01W0000065, with the permission of the Controller of HMSO and The Queen's Printer for Scotland]

I don’t think risk assessments should be made so hurriedly or under such pressure, and I hope that following this there will be a thorough reassessment of the tolerance of commercial jet engines to airborne ash. I still have a letter (dated 1989) from a major airline declining to fund a volcanic ash monitoring project on the grounds that it was ‘unlikely to be value for money’. Ironic, as they now claim to have lost £100 million per day during the flight ban, and doubly so if a plane goes down because the new ‘safe’ limit has been set too high.

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