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Icelandic eruption pertinent to graduate's doctoral research

Reprinted from the University of Canterbury's "Chronicle" 30/04/10

With a thesis on the impact of ashfall on infrastructure under his belt, the eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano was a hot topic for University of Canterbury PhD graduate Scott Barnard.

UC doctoral graduate Scott Barnard pictured at Mt Etna in Sicily
UC doctoral graduate Scott Barnard pictured at Mt Etna in Sicily
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Dr Barnard graduated with a doctoral degree in hazard and disaster management during the University of Canterbury's April graduation ceremony after completing a thesis looking at the impact ashfall would have on various aspects of New Zealand's infrastructure.

As well as looking at the effects it would have on telecommunications, road and wastewater networks and air conditioning, Dr Barnard also looked at the impact it would have on this country's aviation lifelines.

Eyjafjallajokull erupted on 15 April, sending a plume of smoke and ash over Europe and grounded thousands of flights for almost a week.

While Dr Barnard's research did not look at how volcanic ash would affect an aircraft in flight he said this had been demonstrated by what happened to previous flights, including a British Airways flight that flew into an ash cloud over Indonesia in 1982 he looked at the impact it would have on airport infrastructure and grounded planes.

"Volcanic ash can be quite corrosive as there can be a very, very acidic coating around each grain. Painted surfaces are protected from the effects of this but exposed metal surfaces can be quite susceptible, particularly if the ash is wet from the eruption process or if there's moisture in the air," he said.

As part of his research Dr Barnard did fieldwork in Ecuador and Italy to find out how airports and airlines dealt with the effects of ash during volcanic eruptions in those countries.

"I performed tests on different aircraft surfaces to determine how fast abrasion and corrosion occurred. This gave some idea of how quickly it needs to be dealt with to stop planes from getting damaged and basically it needs to be cleaned off as soon as possible. Vulnerable parts of aircraft should also be covered with something like a tarpaulin to protect them from serious damage," he said.

"If there's ash on runways planes can't land or take off as the ash is ingested into the engines, so that all needs to be cleaned up quickly as well."

Dr Barnard said in the current situation in Europe, the ashfall was likely to be light with areas close to the volcano in Iceland potentially being the hardest hit.

"The impact in Europe of ash falling to the ground would be more nuisance value than anything particularly dangerous," he said.

"But it is hard to say how long this event will last and it's too early to tell. The last time this volcano erupted in 1821 it went on for a year but, if it does that again, it doesn't mean there will be continuing ashfall. There will be times when there are no plumes but the effects could be periodic. The early phases of the eruption have produced more ashfall in this instance due to the interaction of the lava with overlying ice. This results in more explosive activity, which subsequently produces more ash. Now that the ice has largely been removed by the eruption, a more effusive eruption style is likely, producing less ash."

Dr Barnard said that in New Zealand, with the active volcanoes being situated in the North Island, it would be that part of the country that would mainly be affected by volcanic ashfall.

"We are as prepared as anyone to deal with those impacts but it's research like this that is helping in that preparedness. At Canterbury there is currently research being undertaken into the effects of ashfall on transmission equipment and on agriculture so we are being proactive in looking at the impacts such events will have on society."

He said the risks posed by geohazards to urban areas were increasing due to the rise in population and the reliance on, and growth of, infrastructure.

"If we look at the development and growth of infrastructure worldwide there is now a lot that wasn't invented or present 30, 40, 50 years ago, and during that time there hasn't been much in the way of eruptions that affected mainstream infrastructure. Now there is a lot more that can be affected and, with more people in the world living closer to volcanoes and our increased reliance on infrastructure, our vulnerability to the effects of eruptions is increasing and that makes us a lot more vulnerable than we would have been 50 years ago."

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