Confronting Ash Fall From Iceland's Volcano, On Both Sides Of The Pond

Everyone in an ash fall zone will be exposed to the effects of volcanic ash as it has the capability of infiltrating tightly sealed buildings and machinery and is often small enough (less than 10 microns) to be inhaled deeply into the lungs. Ash fall over extensive areas can prevent travel for days as we are seeing currently with the number of cancelled flights by British Airways and other transatlantic airlines. So what measures do we take to avoid ash fall and its repercussions during and post eruption?

Iceland owes its geological instability to its positioning in sitting on top of two of the world's great tectonic Tectonic PlatesTectonic Platesplates, the great slabs of rock that make  up the Earth's crust - like the interlocking pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. On both sides of the pond - the mid-ocean territory between North America and Europe contains plates that are literally being torn apart by tumultuous currents deep within the Earth's mantle.

As the two plates move apart, at a rate of a few inches per year, a gap is created where searing hot lava is allowed to fill the void and become the power source for Iceland's volcanoes.

On June 8, 1783, a volcano called Laki, also in the south of Iceland shot nearly a mile into the air. Several cubic miles of lava spewed forth from the fissure and billions of tons of minute ash particles were catapulted into the atmosphere. There were no planes of course, but the massive cloud of ash thrown into the air killed 10,000 Briton as a result of respiratory poisoning and wild swings in weather experienced that year.

With that said, there are things that residents and travelers can do to cope with the Ash Fall from Iceland's most current volcanic eruption.
  • Complete avoidance of volcanic ash by aircraft and the quick exit of an eruption cloud if ash is encountered are the only courses of action for flight crews and dispatchers that guarantees flight safety.
  • Check with the nine regional Volcanic Ash Advisory Centers (VAAC) that were established around the world to advise Meteorological Watch Offices on the issuance of volcanic ash warnings to aircraft and passengers.
  • Travelers need to check the travel insurance policies they purchased to see if they will be covered from hotel and car rental cancellations. Airlines like British Airways have already confirmed refunds or are allowing passengers to rebook for a future date.
  • Keep ash out of buildings, machinery, vehicles, downspouts, water supplies, and wastewater systems as much as possible. The most effective method to prevent ash-induced damage to machinery is to shut down, close off or seal equipment until ash is removed from the immediate environment.
  • Minimize exposure to airborne ash by using dust or filter masks (or a wet cloth, for example a handkerchief) and minimizing travel. The World Health Organization in Geneva advised European residents and travelers to stay indoors to avoid falling ash, particularly for people that suffer from asthma and respiratory diseases.
  • Coordinate clean-up activities with neighbors and community-wide operations (learn the clean-up guidelines and instructions of your local community and leaders). After an ash fall, promptly notify building owners to remove ash from roofs in a timely manner to prevent streets from being repetitively cleaned.
  • Stay informed of volcanic activity in your area, especially during a period of unrest, and know what to expect, including the type of eruptions that can occur and how much warning is possible for ash fall in your area once an explosive eruption occurs. Learn about evacuation procedures in your area.
  • Prepare for an emergency plan by having critical provisions and supplies needed to support your family, business, or community for at least several days; for example, food, water, medicine, and shelter, dust masks and other personal protection equipment, spare filters and parts for machinery and vehicles.
  • Provide information frequently and directly to the public about volcanic ash, including instructions for participating in clean-up operations.
  • Check out social media outlets like this Facebook fan page developed, titled, "When Volcanoes Erupt: A Survival Guide for Stranded Travelers."
  • Hotel rooms in NYC and other departing US cities are discounting hotel rooms for stranded travelers who are waylaid in booking transatlantic flights.
The ash from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland, is about 6,000 to 18,000m (20,000 to 60,000ft) high. If there is any good news to come forward as a result of this horrific natural disaster, it's that volcano eruptions normally have a cooling effect on the Earth's climate, which could slow down global warming. The same report however said "volcanic cooling is in any case a temporary brake on the effects on manmade gases and the volcanic material in the stratosphere damages the Earths' ozone shield against ultraviolet radiation." 

Currently, it's impossible to prevent a volcanic eruption, but it is possible to keep damage to a minimum. In 1973, citizens of Iceland poured cold water onto flowing lava to slow it down, an act that helped save the fishing port of Heimay. John Mc Phee is his book "The Control of Nature," describes an ingenious plan put together by an Icelandic engineer that saved a southern harbor from being destroyed by lava flow. In Sicily, on Mount Etna, engineers blasted holes in the hard crust covering a lava flow using explosives. The lava was subsequently redirected to flow out through the holes instead of devastating villages in its original path.

As Jimmy Buffet humorously referenced in his song "Volcano," the best thing to do in the case of a volcano is to love the one your with because when the "Lava come down soft and hot, you better lava me now or lava me not."

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Apr 24, 2010
by Anonymous

Ash prevention

I wonder if it would be possible to minimize the ash dispersal at the source using high-pressure water directed above or on top of the volcano. If the ash continues to interfere with international airline travel, the international community may be willing to pay for such an expensive option. EG

Jun 13, 2010
by Anonymous

Ash prevention

Hello EG,
I've been thinking about the same measure to minimize the damage. The fine particles should agglomerate before travelling too far. I'm planning some tests.