Madison researchers field volcanic ash warning system

May 04, 2010

( -- From a workstation in Madison, Mike Pavolonis hopes to lay eyes - satellite eyes, that is - on every natural chimney around the globe.

"Our eventual goal is a fully-automated global ash monitoring system," said Pavolonis, a researcher from the (NOAA) working at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies. "Satellites will supply data that will be processed and all of it will be operational. Every volcano will be automatically monitored. Satellite data will be used in models to predict where the ash will go."

The importance of those predictions to organizations like the London Volcanic Action Advisory Centre — which uses Pavolonis' data — has rarely been more obvious. The center monitors ash over the United Kingdom, Iceland and the northeastern Atlantic Ocean. It's a relatively small area, but home to some of the world's busiest air routes and was recently shut down by ash from the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull.

NOAA has been working with UW-Madison for 15 years to develop accurate ash monitoring methods for areas with active volcanoes. While the mountains may seem remote, they often lie along well-worn pieces of sky. For example, Alaska's sparsely populated Aleutian Islands are on the great circle route between Asia and North America. Over 50,000 aircraft a year fly through the area, which has 40 volcanoes that have been active in recent time.

Satellite observation is often the only way to collect data from such remote areas, but simple pictures are not enough to guide safety decisions.

" alone doesn't give you the quantitative information you need," Pavolonis said. "We need to go beyond the visual and determine the characteristics of the . How high is it? How much ash is in the cloud? What direction will it travel?"

As the Iceland eruption made clear, ash plumes can cause problems over wide swaths of the sky. organizations need to react quickly to fresh predictions from outlets like the London VAAC to divert planes around clouds or ground them to avoid engine damage from the large particles in the air.

Pavolonis and his group began developing an algorithm to boost the utility of satellite images five years ago. Their computational instructions tap satellites in geostationary orbit for data to help determine the presence, altitude and density of ash clouds, as well as the size of the ash particles in the cloud.

Their algorithm works, but is best handled by the experts that created it.

"Right now, it takes a good deal of training to get the best information," Pavolonis said. "We have to be very careful of the flow of information because this has real impact. With the stakes this high, there is little room for error."

The hope is the Eyjafjallajökull eruption has focused attention on the problems planes encounter in ash clouds and will help drive the program's development into a widely-used ash monitoring system.

"The algorithm is still in the experimental stage. We are working to make it operational," Pavolonis said. "In other words, to advance to a fully supported program, maintained 24/7, with a distribution system."

Explore further: Researchers propose a novel mechanism to explain High Plains elevation

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

New ash studies needed to 'limit air traffic chaos'

Apr 18, 2010

Better research models of how ash is dispersed would greatly reduce the air traffic havoc wreaked in Europe since an Icelandic volcano began spewing a giant cloud of the toxic dust last week, an expert said ...

Icelandic volcanoes can be unpredictable and dangerous

Apr 16, 2010

If history is any indication, the erupting volcano in Iceland and its immense ash plume could intensify, says a Texas A&M University researcher who has explored Icelandic volcanoes for the past 25 years.

New satellite image of volcanic ash cloud

Apr 15, 2010

This image, acquired today by ESA's Envisat satellite, shows the vast cloud of volcanic ash sweeping across the UK from the eruption in Iceland, more than 1000 km away.

Recommended for you

Stuck-in-the-mud plankton reveal ancient temperatures

12 hours ago

New research in Nature Communications showing how tiny creatures drifted across the ocean before falling to the seafloor and being fossilised has the potential to improve our understanding of past climat ...

NASA sees Mozambique Channel's new tropical storm

13 hours ago

Tropical Cyclone 15S formed in the Mozambique Channel of the Southern Indian Ocean, and the Global Precipitation Measurement or GPM core satellite gathered data on its rainfall rates.

How rain is dependent on soil moisture

13 hours ago

It rains in summer most frequently when the ground holds a lot of moisture. However, precipitation is most likely to fall in regions where the soil is comparatively dry. This is the conclusion reached by ...

ESA image: Hungarian mosaic

14 hours ago

This image of Hungary, with the political border in white, is a mosaic of 11 scans by Sentinel-1A's radar from October to December 2014.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.