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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 on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @11:48PM (#31918450)

    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 @11:49PM (#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:It's simple: (Score:3, Insightful)

    by blackraven14250 (902843) on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @11:52PM (#31918476)
    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.
  • by BadAnalogyGuy (945258) <BadAnalogyGuy@gmail.com> on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @11:54PM (#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.

  • Conversely -- (Score:5, Insightful)

    by JRHelgeson (576325) on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @11:58PM (#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 yokem_55 (575428) on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @11:59PM (#31918516)

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

  • by Chas (5144) on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @12:05AM (#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 afidel (530433) on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @12:15AM (#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 Wednesday April 21, 2010 @12:21AM (#31918668)

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

  • Re:Design (Score:3, Insightful)

    by causality (777677) on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @01:07AM (#31918868)

    That and anyway it is not often that so big ass clouds happen. So what if air travel stops for a day or two every 20 years? Honestly it doesn't justify spending billions to R&D on how to improve the plane designs for it.

    I was wondering if I was the only person who thought this whole incident is not the big deal it's portrayed as. I view this as an inconvenience at best, yet I keep hearing from various media about "dire economic impacts" and such. I don't recall the nautical shipping industry panicking like this over the fact that they can't reasonably send ships through a hurricane, and those happen much more frequently than volcanic eruptions of this magnitude. I get the impression that the rarity of this event that the airliners should be thankful for is also the very reason they are overreacting to it.

  • by causality (777677) on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @01:11AM (#31918880)

    Not a completely bad analogy, but can Slashdot please give us a "Gross, -1" moderation for such cases?

    First we need a "-1, Factually Incorrect" moderation.

  • by Brett Buck (811747) on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @01:27AM (#31918926)

    Hmm, it already melted through 100 miles or so of mostly solid rock, so we are going to stop it by putting a few feet or tens of feet skim coat of far weaker material with a lower melting point?

  • Re:.OGG (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @01:43AM (#31919002)

    Why are you complaining here and not to Apple/Microsoft?

  • Re:Design (Score:5, Insightful)

    by The Master Control P (655590) <<ejkeever> <at> <nerdshack.com>> on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @02:10AM (#31919112)
    Well, perhaps it's time that corporate shipping planners got a reminder that if you do just in time shipping & supply with zero buffer, eventually the supply chain will blink or shut down for a week due to uncontrollable acts of nature and you'll be boned.

    I understand that this doesn't apply to live-shipment items like tulips or medical radioisotopes, but I find it disturbing how much of our economy has been reorganized into something resembling a program that will crash if there's so much as a cache miss in the name of efficiency. Then again, I'm very conservative when it comes to matters of economic robustness - the economy of Vinge's Namqem and the food supply for Asimov's Trantor are my idea of worst-case "how in the name of Christ could anyone anywhere have ever thought this was a good idea?!" scenarios.
  • Re:It's simple: (Score:4, Insightful)

    by TheLink (130905) on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @02:46AM (#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.
  • Re:1783 (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Aceticon (140883) on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @03:15AM (#31919370)

    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).

  • Re:Design (Score:3, Insightful)

    by timbo234 (833667) on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @03:42AM (#31919492) Journal

    I don't recall the nautical shipping industry panicking like this over the fact that they can't reasonably send ships through a hurricane, and those happen much more frequently than volcanic eruptions of this magnitude. I get the impression that the rarity of this event that the airliners should be thankful for is also the very reason they are overreacting to it.

    The difference is that you can see a hurricane. Weather radar, satellite images and such can tell you exactly where the dangerous winds are at any moment so you can simply re-route ships around it. This volcanic ash is not visible, either with conventional radar or visually with great accuracy. Expect this to change in future with more use of the specialised equipment needed to detect it by weather organisations and maybe even in aircraft themselves.

    However for the moment the information needed to route planes around the patches of dangerously dense ash, in real-time for 25,000 flights per day in Europe just isn't there.

  • To this day, I still think the Icelandic language is an elaborate, centuries-long joke on the rest of us - especially those of us who try to learn it.

  • Re:Design (Score:3, Insightful)

    by txoof (553270) on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @05:19AM (#31919938) Homepage

    Well, perhaps it's time that corporate shipping planners got a reminder that if you do just in time shipping & supply with zero buffer, eventually the supply chain will blink or shut down for a week due to uncontrollable acts of nature and you'll be boned.

    Perhaps this is a good time to start thinking about some of the consequences of a global economy. There are definitely benefits to buying from your neighbor, but doing business locally has it's advantages as well. I'm not versed enough in economics to fully understand the implications of switching to a more localized business model, but this may be a great time to think abou the benefits of buying locally.

    There's certainly a very logical argument for buying things like food locally and that's carbon emissions. Weather you believe that global warming is happening or not, carbon emissions cost money. Period. Burning petroleum, coal, or uranium to bring tasty fish from the north pacific to New York city costs money. Buying oranges grown around the corner from your house costs less money. Due to a wide variety of subsidies, relaxed environmental regulation and a whole host of other factors we don't really see the cost of imported food.

    Locally grown food is probably tastier too, as it hasn't been shipped half-way around the world either. The big change is you have to learn to eat seasonally. It may be unreasonable to expect to find magoes in December in Ohio.

  • Re:It's simple: (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @05:20AM (#31919948)

    Yeah, the thing that surprises me the most that everyone only seems to talk about the engines stopping in "the ash cloud". What about the long term life effects of smaller quantities of ash? Or are they seriously claiming they are not going to be flying through any 'contaminated' air at all?

    I've worked with people in the aircraft industry and I think in general they are (fortunately) very serious about their profession. I'm sure the engine manufacturers are looking into the long term effects, but at this very moment I bet they won't do much better than the airplane mfgs. If they don't know, they certainly are not going to speculate about it.

    It's interesting that the airlines are deciding to take the risk; perhaps with the industry being what it is, many don't have much to lose... It's gonna get a hell of a lot worse though when it turns out that they have to overhaul all their engines in half the normal time because of increased wear.

    btw. love the moron at CNN that came up with this question: "Would you be afraid to fly through the ash cloud?" [cnn.com]

Murphy's Law, that brash proletarian restatement of Godel's Theorem. -- Thomas Pynchon, "Gravity's Rainbow"

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