BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A University at Buffalo volcanologist, an expert in volcanic ash cloud transport, published a paper recently showing how the jet stream -- the area in the atmosphere that pilots prefer to fly in -- also seems to be the area most likely to be impacted by plumes from volcanic ash.
"That's a problem," says Marcus I. Bursik, PhD, one of the foremost experts on volcanic plumes and their effect on aviation safety, "because modern transcontinental and transoceanic air routes are configured to take advantage of the jet stream's power, saving both time and fuel.
"The interaction of the jet stream and the plume is likely a factor here," says Bursik, professor of geology in the UB College of Arts and Sciences. "Basically, planes have to fly around the plume or just stop flying, as they have, as the result of this eruption in Iceland."
In some cases, if the plume can be tracked well enough with satellites, pilots can steer around the plume, he notes, but that didn't work in this case because the ash drifted right over Britain.
Bursik participated in the first meetings in the early 1990s between volcanologists and the aviation industry to develop methods to ensure safe air travel in the event of volcanic eruptions. He and colleagues authored a 2009 paper called "Volcanic plumes and wind: Jet stream interaction examples and implications for air traffic" in the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research.
"In the research we did, we found that the jet stream essentially stops the plume from rising higher into the atmosphere," he says. "Because the jet stream causes the density of the plume to drop so fast, the plume's ability to rise above the jet stream is halted: the jet stream caps the plume at a certain atmospheric level."
Bursik says that new techniques now in development will be capable of producing better estimates of where and when ash clouds from volcanoes will travel.
He and his colleagues have propo
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