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Volcanic ash and aviation–The challenges of real-time, global communication of a natural hazard

November 29, 2017

More than 30 years after the first major aircraft encounters with volcanic ash over Indonesia in 1982, it remains challenging to inform aircraft in flight of the exact location of potentially dangerous ash clouds on their flight path, particularly shortly after the eruption has occurred. The difficulties include reliably forecasting and detecting the onset of significant explosive eruptions on a global basis, observing the dispersal of eruption clouds in real time, capturing their complex structure and constituents in atmospheric transport models, describing these observations and modelling results in a manner suitable for aviation users, delivering timely warning messages to the cockpit, flight planners and air traffic management systems, and the need for scientific development in order to undertake operational enhancements. The framework under which these issues are managed is the International Airways Volcano Watch (IAVW), administered by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
ICAO outlines in its standards and recommended practices (International Civil Aviation Organization, 2014) the basic volcanic monitoring and communication that is necessary at volcano observatories in Member States (countries). However, not all volcanoes are monitored and not all countries with volcanoes have mandated volcano observatories or equivalents. To add to the efforts of volcano observatories, a system of Meteorological Watch Offices, Air Traffic Management Area Control Centres, and nine specialist Volcanic Ash Advisory Centres (VAACs) are responsible for observing, analysing, forecasting and communicating the aviation hazard (airborne ash), using agreed techniques and messages in defined formats. Continuous improvement of the IAVW framework is overseen by expert groups representing the operators of the system, the user community, and the science community. The IAVW represents a unique marriage of two scientific disciplines - volcanology and meteorology - with the aviation user community.
There have been many multifaceted volcanic eruptions in complex meteorological conditions during the history of the IAVW. Each new eruption brings new insights into how the warning system can be improved, and each reinforces the lessons that have gone before. The management of these events has improved greatly since the major ash encounters in the 1980s, but discontinuities in the warning and communications system still occur. A good example is a 2014 ash encounter over Indonesia following the eruption of Kelut where the warnings did not reach the aircraft crew. Other events present enormous management challenges – for example the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption in Iceland was, overall, less hazardous than many less publicised eruptions, but numerous small to moderate explosions over several weeks produced widespread disruption and a large economic impact.
At the time of writing, while there has been hundreds of millions of US dollars in damage to aircraft from encounters with ash, there have been no fatalities resulting from aviation incidents in, or proximal to volcanic ash cloud. This reflects, at least in part, the hard work done in putting together a global warning system - although to some extent it also reflects a measure of good statistical fortune.
In order to minimise the risk of aircraft encounters with volcanic ash clouds, the global effort continues. The future priorities for the IAVW are strongly focused on enhancing communication before, and at the very onset of a volcanic ash-producing event (typically the more dangerous stage), together with improved downstream information and warning systems to help reduce the economic impact of eruptions on aviation.