Searching for clues to predict eruption

March 18, 2004, vol. 29, no. 6
By Carol Thorbes

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It sounds like a scene out of a horror movie: molten volcanic ash engulfing the blades of an aircraft's engines, transforming the jumbo jet into a diving glider.

Simon Fraser University assistant professor Glyn Williams-Jones knows such scenes are more fact than fiction.

He cites a near tragedy in 1989 when a KLM jet encountered a cloud of volcanic ash while passing over Redoubt volcano in Alaska, a state dotted with highly active volcanoes.

“All four of the KLM flight's engines shut down and the plane lost 4,000 metres,” recalls Williams-Jones, a recent recruit in SFU's earth sciences department.

He is one of about 20 vulcanologists in Canada, studying collaboratively the creation, structure and activity of volcanoes worldwide in an effort to avoid incidents such as the KLM one.

“Thankfully, efforts to restart the plane's engines caused their blades to shudder and shatter off the volcanic ash. It had turned to a glass-like material on contact,” says Williams-Jones.

He thinks that pilots need more than luck on their side if they are to beat the increasing odds of a close encounter with volcanic debris.

Air traffic across the north pole from Vancouver to Europe or Asia is increasing rapidly.

“The large planes on these 14 to 15 hour flights run on two or four engines, which are sensitive to any blockage,” notes Williams-Jones. “They'll shut down almost immediately if their blades encounter molten ash or flying volcanic rock.”

Williams-Jones uses tools such as remote sensing imagery, ultra violet spectrometers, seismometers and global positioning systems to forecast a volcano's gas buildup and potential for eruption.

“A common signal of an impending eruption,” says Williams-Jones, “is increasing amounts of gas emissions.”

Vulcanologists collect other telling clues about an impending eruption at the summits of volcanoes, often a vulcanologist's personal laboratory.
“By precisely measuring tiny gravity changes and the deformation of a volcano's flanks, we can tell if new molten rock is rising in the volcano,” says Williams-Jones.

He is constructing models to better understand volcanic eruptions, which could be used to assess the danger of more inaccessible volcanoes.
Persistent gas emissions from many volcanoes in Central America can devastate farmland, cause chronic lung diseases, and even kill people.

“Acid gas emissions can pollute grass eaten by livestock downwind of the volcano,” explains Williams-Jones, who spends a lot of time studying gas emissions from Nicaragua's Masaya volcano.

Williams-Jones realizes that scientists cannot stop the hand of mother nature, but he hopes his work will help industries and developers plan projects that steer clear of her impending wrath.

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