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Transportation Science

Volcano Futures 284

Posted by kdawson
from the don't-know-where-i'm-a-gonna-go dept.
Now that the volcanic ash cloud is easing off from Europe and airports are re-opening, it's time to look ahead a bit. The first question is, will the Eyjafjallajökull (.OGG) volcano's ash cloud visit the US? According to Discovery News, the answer is: not likely. This article also provides good current answers, as best scientists know, to other questions such as "How long will this volcano keep erupting?" (could be months), and "Will the ash cloud cause cooling in Europe?" (nope). New Scientist looks at the question of whether planes can fly safely through volcanic ash clouds — and concludes there's a lot we don't know. "Ever since a Boeing 747 temporarily lost all four engines in an ash cloud in 1982, the International Civil Aviation Organization has stipulated that skies must be closed as soon as ash concentration rises above zero. The ICAO's International Airways Volcano Watch uses weather forecasting to predict ash cloud movements, and if any projections intersect a flight path, the route is closed. But although it is certain that volcanic ash like that hanging over northern Europe can melt inside a jet engine and block airflow, nobody has the least idea about just how much is too much. After a week of losing millions every day, airlines are starting to ask why we can't do better."
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Volcano Futures

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  • .OGG (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    The rest of the planet uses AAC and MP3, insensitive clod!

    Seriously, Vorbis and Theora are not supported by default on either Windows or Mac OS X, so it's really a PITA to use those formats for 99.999% of the users.

    • Re:.OGG (Score:5, Funny)

      by pegasustonans (589396) on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @11:19PM (#31918660)

      Seriously, Vorbis and Theora are not supported by default on either Windows or Mac OS X, so it's really a PITA to use those formats for 99.999% of the users.

      Yes, but Slashdot tends to represent the .001% of the population that knows more about installing different codecs than getting sunshine, interacting with members of the opposite sex and those other boring activities that we don't have time for.

    • by Z00L00K (682162)

      And if you use Winamp you will be able to play OGG files, so it's a minor problem.

      And there are plugins for OGG format for Windows Media Player if you really feel the urge to use it.

    • by Trepidity (597)

      More a fault of the article submitter; they should've linked to the Wikimedia Commons page [wikimedia.org], which can play it in the browser most OS/browser combinations.

    • Oh for fuck's sake! just download the codecs and quit whining. It's not like it takes any skill to install.

      The rest of the planet uses AAC and MP3, insensitive clod!

      Seriously, Vorbis and Theora are not supported by default on either Windows or Mac OS X, so it's really a PITA to use those formats for 99.999% of the users.

  • Design (Score:3, Insightful)

    by blackraven14250 (902843) on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @10:49PM (#31918460)
    Maybe we can't do better because the design of a jet engine is to suck in as much air as possible with tiny blades, compress it, then spit it out at an extremely high temperature that happens to remelt ash?
    • Re:Design (Score:5, Informative)

      by Z00L00K (682162) on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @11:47PM (#31918788) Homepage

      Notice that the threat is real - the Finnish air force did get engine damage on their F18:s when they were flying through the cloud. Just take a look here: Finnish F-18 engine check reveals effects of volcanic dust [flightglobal.com]

      And we must blame Top Gear [autoblog.com] for the eruption too.

      • Thanks for posting the link to the Finnish F-18 engine photos. The airborne dust is clearly accreting in molten globs on hot section parts. These mixed oxide/silicate blobs may react with hot section materials - not sure what the specific materials are in the F-18 engines, but they're commonly nickel-based superalloys, often with ceramic thermal barrier coatings. I think the volcanic material might form eutectic (lower melting point) compounds with either the thermal barrier coatings or the underlying all
    • by TheLink (130905)
      And do it at high efficiency.

      That said, jetplanes do operate in dusty sandy places (e.g. Middle East). Are the airborne particles significantly different in concentration and behaviour in a jet engine?
      • Re:Design (Score:5, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @11:59PM (#31918852)

        Yeah, totally. Sand particles are a lot bigger (the volcanic ash particles are around one micron in diameter), so they tend not to occur very far above ground level and are less prone to melting in the engine.

      • by sjames (1099)

        Yes, the volcanic ash is finer and more abrasive. The former makes it tend to melt and form a glass coating on jet engine parts, the latter puts more wear on anything that moves.

        I'm not sure but I think the ash also hangs around at higher altitudes and so affects the engines for the entire flight.

    • Re:Design (Score:4, Interesting)

      by causality (777677) on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @12:02AM (#31918862)

      Maybe we can't do better because the design of a jet engine is to suck in as much air as possible with tiny blades, compress it, then spit it out at an extremely high temperature that happens to remelt ash?

      Is it safe to assume that prop planes are not affected by aerial concentrations of volcanic ash? If so, how difficult would it be for the airliner to rent/lease a fleet of prop planes for the duration of this problem? I realize that no prop plane is going to have the passenger capacity of a jumbo jet and that this is a far less than ideal solution. Still, in the face of losing "millions a day" or in terms of "it's either this option or you're stranded here", does it become better than nothing?

      • Re:Design (Score:5, Informative)

        by jonwil (467024) on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @12:50AM (#31919022)

        Even if prop planes were unaffected, no-one makes a prop plane with more than a hand-full of seats, all larger prop planes are actually turboprops which would likely have the same problems as jets.

      • by sjames (1099)

        Alas, most prop planes are turboprops these days, so they have the same problems. The size of plane that has actual piston engines would need 50 flights just to get one jetliner worth of people home.

        They also require a different fuel that probably isn't available at the large airports that are prepared for large numbers of passengers milling around.

      • by Calinous (985536)

        You mean piston-engined planes, as there are planes (and helicopters) powered by "jet-like" engines.
        However, piston-engined planes went out of fashion sometime around 1960, as they are much more maintenance-intensive. And the world's air fleet is having maybe a 10% excess, and most of it is in old jet-powered planes (some of those might be forbidden to fly in passenger service in Europe and USA). And unlike words (which you can utter at a moment's notice), planes take a while to build.

      • by wvmarle (1070040)

        If so, how difficult would it be for the airliner to rent/lease a fleet of prop planes for the duration of this problem?

        Very difficult.

        There is no-one in this world with dozens of aircraft available for rent. Let alone the hundreds that would be needed to cover existing jet services. And they are no drop-in replacement: slower, less range, less passenger capacity.

  • After a week of losing millions every day, airlines are starting to ask why we can't do better.

    Airlines: We want open airspace.
    ICAO: Sure, you guys fund the study.
    Airlines: ????
    ICAO: *Profit*

    Sounds pretty open and shut to me on a serious note. Red Tape at it's best.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Oh, so now ICAO is going to profit from a study being done? Maybe they're just going to get some sort of assurance that it's safe to have molten obsidian chillin' in the jet engines of airlines, and can use that against them if they end up killing people for the sake of profit.
      • Oh, so now ICAO is going to profit from a study being done?

        No, according to GP, ICAO is going to profit from whatever the Airlines did in "????". What happens at that step is anyone's guess (as it always has been).

    • Re:It's simple: (Score:4, Insightful)

      by TheLink (130905) on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @01:46AM (#31919254) Journal
      I think that's unfair. It's more like:

      Airlines: We think its safe[1] to fly our planes NOW!
      ICAO: Really? Let's hear from Boeing and Airbus on what levels of ash are safe for their engines. So over to you Airbus and Boeing.
      Boeing: ...
      Airbus: ...
      ICAO: Hello? You guys still there?
      Boeing+Airbus: Uh hold on while we do a few tests...

      There's plenty of evidence why the airlines aren't allowed to make that call :).

      It's the job of the airlines to push the ICAO to let them fly ASAP.
      It's the job of the ICAO to not let them fly till they know it is safe enough.

      From what I've seen, the pilots and engineers don't think it's that safe. Few pilots want to find out if they're as good and lucky as the ones who did some gliding in Indonesian airspace ;).

      [1] They may think that the economic impact to them of nobody flying after X weeks could be greater than one or two plane problems/crashes.
  • prophet (Score:5, Funny)

    by poopdeville (841677) on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @10:53PM (#31918478)

    I was hoping this was about a new market in futures contracts opening up.

    • Oh good, something else for Goldman Sachs to get sued over: volcano-backed securities!

    • Don't say that out loud, you fool - someone might actually think it's a good idea.

      Our economy is incomprehensible enough as it is.

  • by BadAnalogyGuy (945258) <BadAnalogyGuy@gmail.com> on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @10:54PM (#31918486)

    You geeks should probably have a clear concept of how volcanoes work. It's like a gigantic pool of molten sebum seething and swelling just under the surface of the earth. When this sebum reaches a vent or finds a weakness in the skin, it erupts pus and bacteria all over. In some areas, these "pimples" are very common. Many can be found on or near the so-called Ring of Fire.

    After erupting, the area is still tender and prone to subsequent eruption, but a treatment of peroxide and salicylic acid can help clear it up and prevent infection.

    As I was saying, just because one volcano calms down on one side of the Earth, another volcano may be getting closer to eruption on the other side (Yellowstone). If you think pimples on your face are bad, wait until you get one on your ass.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @10:55PM (#31918492)

    Anyone else hit Eyjafjallajökull [wikimedia.org] about 15 times?

  • Space programs (Score:5, Informative)

    by afidel (530433) on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @10:57PM (#31918498)
    Every time people ask why we fund the space agencies, here is your answer. The majority of the data we DO have in this situation is from downlooking satellites from ESA and NASA.The The Deep Space Climate Observatory was mothballed for almost a decade and yet it has sensors on it that could be helping significantly with measuring ash density source [74.125.45.132]. There are several other vehicles that can help significantly with this and other problems that cost many, many times the project cost, but all people see is the big number at the end of each budget, not the benefits.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by DerekLyons (302214)

      Every time people ask why we fund the space agencies, here is your answer. The majority of the data we DO have in this situation is from downlooking satellites from ESA and NASA.

      Were the US satellites NASA or NOAA? (Or somebody else?)

      At least in the US, cutting funding for NASA will have less impact than you might think because they aren't sole [non military/intelligence] satellite operator the government has.

      The Deep Space Climate Observatory was mothballed for almost a decade and yet it h

  • Conversely -- (Score:5, Insightful)

    by JRHelgeson (576325) on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @10:58PM (#31918506) Homepage Journal

    Had they permitted a plane to fly, and it crashed, the outcry of permitting a plane to fly when we knew about the risks posed by volcanic ash...

    But this wasn't even volcanic ash, it was volcanic glass, the effect would be sandblasting the engine while in operation. The safe option was to keep planes on the ground.

    Fly or stay grounded - either way, whiners will whine.

    • by Kingrames (858416)
      I don't think it was about "safe".
      It's a sad but safe bet that the airlines weren't worried about people dying, but rather worried about them suddenly becoming litigious hypochondriacs.
      Very likely that at least one person would claim that the volcanic ash gave them a horrible disease or whatever, and then, well...
      Let's just say it's a good thing those planes stayed on the ground.
    • by wdr1 (31310) *

      was or is?

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by JLangbridge (1613103)
      It isn't only about the engines; BA 009 did suffer engine failure over 20 years ago, and they managed to restart all their engines and land, but the incident didn't stop at the engines. On final approach, they also found out that they could hardly see outside. Once they landed (doing an instrument landing), they also found out that all the attack surfaces had been sandblasted; the wings, the tail, but also the windshield. Flying through microscopic particles of stone or glass isn't just a danger for the eng
  • by yokem_55 (575428) on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @10:59PM (#31918516)

    Is this testable by putting an engine in a wind tunnel, and then testing for damage at various concentrations of ash?

    • by afidel (530433) on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @11:15PM (#31918624)
      At $10M per and a significant fraction of that just to do a teardown and evaluation I'm not sure that anyone wants to fund that kind of research. Perhaps the government could do it with surplus engines from retired F-16's or something.
      • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @11:21PM (#31918668)

        $10M is nothing when they're losing something like $200M per day.

      • by Vellmont (569020)


        At $10M per and a significant fraction of that just to do a teardown and evaluation I'm not sure that anyone wants to fund that kind of research.

        Until now. The airlines likely won't do it (and don't have the expertise anyway), but to Airbus or Boeing, the limits of flying through an ash cloud might just be a major selling point.

        • by dakameleon (1126377) on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @11:53PM (#31918830)

          to Airbus or Boeing, the limits of flying through an ash cloud might just be a major selling point.

          Actually, it'd be far more relevant to Rolls Royce, GE Aviation, Pratt & Whitney and the like.

          • I'm fairly sure airplane producers would use it as a selling point just as well as engine designers.
          • by TheLink (130905)
            There are many other bits of the plane that get affected by volcanic ash.

            Even the screens can get damaged.

            So the plane manufacturer has to ask their engine supplier and other suppliers to help do some tests which hopefully simulate reality enough.
      • That $10M doesn't count the damage to the wind tunnel and instrumentation.
    • by wvmarle (1070040)

      Euhm... I don't think it's a good idea to actually run a full-sized jet engine inside a wind tunnel. Because that's what you will have to do, after all the problem is not as much the sandblasting but the melting of ash inside a hot engine. And you would have to do that for many hours on end, without melting the wind tunnel in the process.

      Maybe overclockers have an idea on how to get rid of all that excess heat.

  • by Chas (5144) on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @11:05PM (#31918550) Homepage Journal

    After a week of losing millions every day, airlines are starting to ask why we can't do better.

    Tell you what. Let all the bean counters volunteer to get into a jet and fly back and forth through an ash plume until the engines fail and the jet crashes, killing everyone.

    THEN ask that stupid fucking question again.

    The reason nobody can say is there's no metrics for uptake by a jet and no guarantee that the ash plume is going to be consistent with whatever testbed is set up.

    Honestly, losing millions a day? Do they want to invest a couple billion a year (if not a month) into testing every plausible (and some implausible) ash-to-air-to-engine-intake ratio for every commercial jetliner extant?

    With various air carriers already cutting finances close to the bone, I don't think they really have the money to spend on this kind of research or on remediation methods and practices for overhauling engines on planes after scenarios like this.

    • by Vellmont (569020)


      The reason nobody can say is there's no metrics for uptake by a jet and no guarantee that the ash plume is going to be consistent with whatever testbed is set up.

      No. The reason nobody can say is there's been essentially zero reason to DO the controlled tests until possibly now. How often do ash clouds interrupt busy air traffic corridors? Never?

      I guarantee you that if ash clouds were an every day occurrence, the limits of the technology to fly through them would be well known. Since it's rare, they aren

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by mukund (163654)
      This ash cloud from the Iceland volcano has caused engine damage [flightglobal.com]. I wonder if airlines are throwing caution away to avoid the daily loss in business.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by TubeSteak (669689)

      Honestly, losing millions a day? Do they want to invest a couple billion a year (if not a month) into testing every plausible (and some implausible) ash-to-air-to-engine-intake ratio for every commercial jetliner extant?

      I think you're confused about who "they" are.
      The airlines have never been in the business of testing anything.
      In this case "they" are the engine mfgs &/or the government.

      Since the MFGs are saying "don't use our engines under these conditions,"
      even if airports weren't shut down, no airline's insurance carrier would cover damage anyways.

    • You can't live a life without risk. Nor is the avoidance of risk worth any price (otherwise we'd drive a tank at 5km/hr while wearing a helmet and a flak jacket to go to the corner store for milk.) (And then not drink the milk for fear it was contaminated.) Ask all those people stuck in the wrong part of the world whether they'd take a flight if the chance of dying was 1 in 100,000 rather than the normal 1 in 9,000,000 [planecrashinfo.com]. I think you'd find most of them would accept it as a worthwhile risk.

      Also, not flying is

      • Given that I already had three cars totalled by some idiot rear-ending me while I was waiting at a light, I might very well go for the tank option soon. Next fucker to rear-end me gonna get ground into dust by my new tank's threads - after bouncing off the reactive armor. Eat that! ;)
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Faizdog (243703)

      It's not just the airline bean counters who are worried about this. I'm being directly affected. I was in Europe for work, and was supposed to fly back to the US last Sun. I've been stuck here since. I'm quite desperate to get back home and back to my life.

      It may seem cool to be stuck in Europe, but in actuality it's not. It feels semi-prison like in that I'm stuck in a place (albeit a very nice, historical and cultural one) and unable to get home. Things are going on at work, with friends, family and

      • by TheLink (130905)
        I'm sure the regulators will let the airlines fly once:

        1) The plane and plane engine manufacturers let them know what levels of ash are OK.
        2) The weather people say what levels of ash are out there.
        3) It is reasonable to believe that 2 < 1 in 99.9% of the flight paths.
        Or
        4) There's extremely little ash out there.

        If they allow flights without the above, then they're not doing their jobs properly.
    • Do they want to invest a couple billion a year (if not a month) into testing every plausible (and some implausible) ash-to-air-to-engine-intake ratio for every commercial jetliner extant?

      That's an interesting number, I'd like to see how you come up with that number for doing research.

      Personally I'd be interested in getting more detailed information about how volcano ash hurts a jet engine. We know that enough of it can cause engine failure, and at some point the ash concentration gets so small it has no effect. How small is too small? Do different kinds of ash have different effects? These are interesting questions, and if someone wants to research them, I'd like to hear the answers.

  • by pegasustonans (589396) on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @11:07PM (#31918566)

    As many people in the United States with immigrant ancestors know, the government is going to have to naturalise the volcano's name if the ashes pass Ellis Island.

    Get ready for Mt. Ekull.

  • Just curious, would piston engined planes not have a problem with this?

    Fire up an old DC-3. I don't suppose they had air-filters though? and ash is probably hard on the prop?

  • 1783 (Score:5, Informative)

    by NicknamesAreStupid (1040118) on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @11:27PM (#31918702)
    It seems amazing that we have avoided something like the 1783 eruption that lasted for two years and killed over a hundred thousand. Can you imagine air traffic disrupted for years? BTW, the same thing could happen to us from the Aleutians.
    • You'd suspect that engine technology would develop very fast if that were to be the case...

    • we have avoided something like the 1783 eruption that lasted for two years

      Who said it was over? Earlier today, it was beginning to ramp up on the ash spewing again.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Aceticon (140883)

      If European airspace was closed for 2 years we might see a return of the era of the luxury cruise liner or even better, of the zepellin (imagine if London to Berlin took 8h but in an airship with the room and conforts of a small cruise ship).

  • Some think so [io9.com]. Icelandic volcanoes seem to go through cycles, and a high activity one could be starting. Maybe this volcano alone could not be so bad, but more and for long time could have severe consequences, in economy and maybe global climate.
  • Some scientist in the Netherlands has stated that the whole problem is overhyped. Yes of course it is dangerous to fly through an ash-cloud within 100 miles from the vulcano, but after some days (and that is what we are talking about) most of the big particles in the cloud have fallen to the earth, and the rest has been deluted to such an extend that there is no acute danger. Planes also regularly fly through other dust clouds (from deserts) and that too is not a reason for planes to be grounded.

    It looks li

  • by mattr (78516) <mattr&telebody,com> on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @01:33AM (#31919208) Homepage Journal

    From what I can tell via google,

    - Ash melts at 1100 degrees, below operating temperature of jet engines, and fuses into the engine
    - Windshields can be abraded so badly you cannot see out of them
    - Ash is dry and doesn't show up on radar, so new sensors are needed so pilots can discover it
    - There are no standards for how much ash is allowed or how to test aircraft against it.
    - Possibility that propellor planes and helicopters are safer

    So my conclusions for now are:
    - Need better rules, and government should pay for the experimentation
    - Need better intelligence, so we can be sure a route is safe
    - Need to examine flying propellor planes slowly at very low altitudes below the ash
    - Nobody has thought about ash bothering ground transportation. Does it?
    - Need alternative transportation
        o Trains, buses, boats
        o Slower aircraft.. hovercraft or balloons? (they still have engines though)
        o Need a closed engine design. (chemical or hydrogen powered electric closed engine?)
        o This is a common problem, more needs to be done for global transportation security. I even found a volcanic explosion in Japan yesterday at the ash advisory center, though it is not in the news at all.
    http://ds.data.jma.go.jp/svd/vaac/data/TextData/20100420_SAKU_0403_Text.html [jma.go.jp]

    Links:
    http://www.pprune.org/rumours-news/412103-ash-clouds-threaten-air-traffic.html [pprune.org]
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/apr/15/volcanic-ash-bad-for-planes [guardian.co.uk]
    http://www.boards.ie/vbulletin/showthread.php?threadid=2055888944 [boards.ie]
    http://www.ssd.noaa.gov/VAAC/vaac.html [noaa.gov]

  • They resume flights. Things appear perfectly normal. In a few weeks time, small numbers of engine failures and instrument and control failures start happening, apparently randomly. It is said to have no relation to the dust. It is very hard to track down the cause, or tell if its unusual for some reason, or just statistical noise, because the planes have been flying all over the world, not just in the affected areas. A few weeks after that, we have three or four total engine failures at once over buil

    • That seems unlikely. Maybe I'm just naive but I'm pretty sure they will have thorough inspections of the engines after flying through the ash clouds. Not doing so could be catastrophic and I doubt any airline would risk it (not to mention they are supposed to do a lot of inspections before flights anyway).

  • After a week of losing millions every day, airlines are starting to ask why we can't do better."

    We can. It's called not putting your eggs in one basket and developing high speed rail.

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