E-mail alerts to warn pilots about volcanic eruptions

Friday, December 17, 2010

SYDNEY - Scientists from New Zealand are developing a new system to alert pilots on flights via e-mails about volcanic eruptions by detecting the lightning their ash clouds trigger.

The system, publicly unveiled by US researchers, uses data from the World Wide Lightning Location Network (WWLLN) to create automated e-mail alerts within minutes of suspicious lightning activity occurring near volcanoes.

The WWLLN was founded by now retired University of Otago professor Richard Dowden, and the computer code for generating the new system’s alerts was written by Dunedin-based Otago doctoral graduate James Brundell, according to an Otago statement.

Otago physics researcher Craig Rodger, who leads New Zealand’s WWLLN activities, says the early warning system is an exciting development for both the network and in helping to ensure safer skies.

“In some of the world’s remote regions that otherwise lack good monitoring of volcanic activity, this system could pick up the slack and allow local aviation early warning of potentially hazardous ash plumes,” Rodger says.

In October this year, the system proved its potential by giving the first indication of an eruption of a volcano in Kamchatka in the Russian Far East.

An hour before the ash cloud appeared in satellite images, an automatic e-mail was sent to Brundell and researchers from the University of Washington and the U.S. Geological Survey, he says.

The system involves monitoring lightning strokes occurring around all of the world’s 1,500 or so volcanoes, as well as more distant lightning from each volcano (up to 100 km) to help determine if new strokes over the volcano are possibly weather related.

Because weather-related lightning is very common in many parts of the world where volcanoes are found, only those in Alaska, the Marianas, and the Russian Far East are currently assigned to the automatic real time alerts, he says.

Filed under: Accidents and Disasters

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