Beautiful volcanic ash is dangerous, but scientists flew right into it

To understand the spread of the plume, scientists flew directly into the beautiful ashes to sample the gases. The volcanic ash continues to disrupt flights, as the plume spreads across Europe. The volcanic ash is not only dangerous to planes, but to people.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor

As you may have already read, volcanic ash from the eruption of the Eyjafjallajoekull glacier has drifted from Iceland over to Northern Europe.

The volcanic ash looks pretty in this satellite image taken by Envisat's Medium Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (MERIS).

But looks can be deceiving. Volcanic ash can stop the engines of airplanes, so flights remain grounded throughout Northern Europe.

The last time a significant ash cloud spread over Europe, thousands of people died.

The BBC reports:

Dr Dougal Jerram, a volcanologist from the Department of Earth Sciences at Durham University explained: "One of the most influential ever eruptions was the 1783-1784 event at Laki in Iceland when an estimated 120 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide were emitted, approximately equivalent to three times the total annual European industrial output in 2006.

"This outpouring of sulphur dioxide during unusual weather conditions caused a thick haze to spread across Western Europe, resulting in many thousands of deaths throughout 1783 and the winter of 1784.

When the ash makes its way to the ground, it can be dangerous for people as well. After the particles from the dusty haze fell on the ground in Scotland, UK experts issued a health advisory.

The Health Protection Agency issued a statement:

It is important to stress that the concentration of particles which may reach ground level is likely to be low and should not cause serious harm. If people are outside this evening and notice symptoms such as itchy or irritated eyes, runny nose, sore throat or dry cough, or if they notice a dusty haze in the air or can smell sulphur, rotten eggs, or a strong acidic smell, they may wish to limit their activities outdoors or return indoors. Those with existing respiratory conditions such as chronic bronchitis, emphysema and asthma may notice these effects more than others and should ensure they have any inhalers or other medications with them.

So while the public is told to avoid the outdoors if the air begins to smell of rotten eggs, scientists flew right into the ash so they could measure the plume's speed and direction.

The Telegraph reports: ''I don't believe that anybody has really used an aircraft to sample the edge of these plumes before - it is actually very dangerous....If you fly into the ash and your engines stop, you crash,'' [said Peter Purcell, of the Natural Environment Research Council, based at Gloucester Airport].

The brave scientists survived and brought back data that could tell them more about the environmental impact of the eruption. The results could have an immediate impact on the forecasts and influence any decisions to reopen airports.
Image: ESA

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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