Reducing the economic impact of volcanic activity to aviation (OPEN)

The 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajokull resulted in large economic loses for the aviation industry (£1.1bn) and the subsequent impacts on the global economy were estimated at US$5bn. At the time, the London Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre (VAAC) at the UK Met Office produced regular bulletins to inform the industry of the likely location of the ash cloud and where flight should be avoided. As the eruption (and subsequent disruption) continued, the original avoid all ash policy was amended to allow flight under certain conditions.

Subsequently when the larger eruption of Grimsvotn occurred in 2011 this, along with other improvements in forecasting and monitoring meant that disruption was much less and the economic impact was reduced. Despite these improvements there still remains a number of issues regarding ash monitoring, forecasting and management of airspace during ash events. The likelihood of another eruption affecting European airspace is high: on average, Iceland experiences one major event every five years and the volcanoes of Italy and N. Africa also have the potential to cause disruption. In some regions (e.g. N. Pacific, Australasia) ash causes regular disruption to flights and encounters with ash clouds still occur frequently (nine reported globally in 2009). As a result of the uncertainty in forecasting and monitoring ash clouds, the industry is continuing to turn to the research community to seek further understanding of the effects of ash on aircraft and how to apply improvements in modelling and observations operationally. Since 2010, a number of NERC funded consortia have been undertaking world-leading research into improving observations and modelling of volcanic ash clouds. Bristol for example are leading the PURE-CREDIBLE program whose aims are to improve handling of uncertainty in natural hazards and to develop better communications between stakeholders and scientists. Within CREDIBLE, the use of probabilistic forecasting and data insertion to improve model predictions has shown significant improvements in ash forecasting. Developments of in-situ and remote sensing monitoring instruments to supplement satellite observations such as the UK lidar network, the ZEUS airborne instrument and the Met Office research aircraft are also important. A number of informal working groups have been held to initiate discussion between the researchers and the aviation industry, which have highlighted the need for improvements in how knowledge is transferred between the two groups. These one-off meetings have demonstrated that the academic perception of how data should be offered, such as how uncertainty in forecasts is represented, is very different from that expected by those responsible for operations. The fellowship will take place over a three year period and will bring together researchers, the aviation industry and policymakers to ensure decision making during volcanic eruptions is supported by accessible and relevant data from the research community. The project will take place in a number of stages, beginning with an initial assessment of the data gaps facing the aviation industry, identification of the most critical gaps and recognising how research outputs can be translated to fill these gaps. Researchers and industry will be brought together to discuss ideas through regular stakeholder workshops and a standardised method in which data can be provided to the industry will be developed. The provision of this information to airlines, airports and other operators will allow for enhanced forward planning reducing disruption to passengers, securing aircraft availability, re-routing so more flights can go ahead even where ash is present in some regions of airspace and a reduction in wasted fuel from diverted flights. Even a small % decrease in disruption to air traffic could have large economic benefits (e.g. airlines lost an estimated $400m/day during Eyja).

Grant reference
Natural Environment Research Council
Total awarded
£90,973 GBP
Start date
9 Jan 2017
1 year 5 months
End date
9 Jun 2018