Alaskan Volcanic Ash

Impacts from volcanic eruptions can be significant.

There were several severe impacts from a series of eruptions from Mount Redoubt in March-April 2009 as described in the official NWS assessment and included partially in this story. Two major lahars (mudflows) moved down the Drift River and partially inundated an oil terminal. Airborne ash clouds posed a hazard to aviation and caused multiple flight cancellations and reroutes. Alaska Airlines cancelled approximately 200 flights. FedEx, United Parcel Service and several other cargo airlines rerouted aircraft to Seattle. Ash fall forced Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage to close for 20 consecutive hours.

Disruption to the aviation industry was significant for passenger travel and cargo transportation between Asia and North America. Minor ash fall impacted several communities as far downwind as Delta Junction, Alaska, 400 miles northeast of Anchorage. Elmendorf Air Force Base assets were temporarily relocated. There were also impacts to oil field operations due to the cessation of oil storage at Chevron's Drift River Oil Terminal.

Cost figures for the total economic impact of this event were not available at the time of this report. However, the economic impact is estimated to be less than or equal to the cost of the impact from the 1989-1990 Mount Redoubt event (estimated at $160 million).

Throughout the aviation sector, safety is paramount. This was this demonstrated at a large scale in the spring of 2010 when the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland erupted on March 20, 2010 and continued through May 2010. The eruption threw volcanic ash several kilometers up in the atmosphere which led to air travel disruption in northwest Europe for six days beginning April 15 and more so in May 2010, including the closure of airspace over many parts of Europe. These decisions were based on model data identifying ash clouds that are extremely hazardous to aircraft.

When ingested into aircraft engines, volcanic ash can lead to engine damage or failure. For example, in December 1989 a 747 jetliner carrying 231 passengers encountered an ash cloud during an eruption of the Mount Redoubt volcano located southwest of Anchorage, AK. Within 60 seconds of encountering the heavy ash cloud, all four engines of the aircraft had stalled. Fortunately, the pilot was able to restart the engines narrowly avoiding a crash. Volcanic ash is extremely abrasive and even small concentrations can cause severe damage to the exterior of aircraft. In addition, ash falls pose significant health and infrastructure threats to those on the ground. Breathing volcanic ash can result in serious illness or death, and ash falls can also pollute water supplies and damage or destroy buildings.

StormCenter's collaboration technology is currently being enhanced to become a replacement for the Volcanic Ash Coordination Tool (VACT) in the NWS Alaska Region. StormCenter's technology is also being considered at the highest levels in the aviation community. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is moving forward in considering StormCenter's technology as a Collaborative Decision Making (CDM) innovation that can span across the globe and assist nations with a coordinated approach to keeping traveling global populations safe.

The challenge presented to StormCenter is the current inability for multiple agencies and organizations to access and view the same datasets at the same time for rapid evaluation and situational awareness when it comes to volcanic activity and ash monitoring. It is critical that NWS and its partners across the globe have accurate information with regard to the height, path, and direction of movement that volcanic ash exhibits and the effect it may have on aviation and other transportation systems. StormCenter's technology has the potential to save billions of dollars and hundreds of lives.