Ash Wednesday

On 14 March 2010 the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajoekull conspired with a major kink in the stratospheric jet stream, itself a possible outcome of ‘quiet Sun’ conditions, to load the lower atmosphere with its ash cloud. The cloud arrived over most of Europe the following day with outcomes that need no mention here.

Researchers collected samples from the plume over Britain, finding particles mainly of the order of 0.1 mm diameter ranging up to 3 mm. The larger particles account for much of the mass of suspended ash (Sanderson, K. Questions fly over ash-cloud models. Nature, v. 464, p. 1253), but that amounted to only 60 mg m-3 in the air over Britain compared with a ‘danger level’ of 2000 mg m-3 declared by the Civil Aviation Authority. That volcanic ash – and presumably dust from sand storms – is hazardous to aircraft is a truism, but little is known about the actual processes involved.

At the speed of modern jet aircraft, mineral or glass dust sandblasts flight deck windscreen, may damage or clog the tubes used to measure airspeed, build up electrostatic charge to interfere with communications and may melt to coat turbine blades (Wikipedia –“volcanic ash”). Two near-catastrophic encounters of Boeing 747 passenger aircraft with ash clouds in the 1980s formed the basis for precautionary halting of all air traffic over most of Europe in mid-April 2010. In both incidents all four engines overheated and cut out, as the ash melted onto turbine blades and prevented them cooling. Fortunately, descent below the ash cloud cooled and shattered the glass coating so that the engines could be restarted. However, unbalancing of the turbines potentially could have caused them to jam irreversibly. Jet engines run at around 1400º C so can potentially melt ash of any composition: at atmospheric pressure the melting temperature of both felsic and basaltic materials is 1000-1200º C. Both the 1980s incidents occurred suddenly in thick ash plumes close to volcanoes, in which ash particles would have been larger than those in the dispersed cloud over Europe in April 2010. Little is known about how melted ash might accumulate in and damage turbines during prolonged flight through very dispersed, ultra-fine-grained ash clouds.

Disruption of aviation schedules is just one continental-scale hazard from Icelandic volcanoes. In the summer of 1783 an eruption of Laki, a fissure volcano further inland, killed 80% of Iceland’s sheep, 50% of other livestock and by the end of the year 25% of its human population. The magma was enriched in fluorine and among the emitted gases was hydrogen fluoride that reacted with ash to form metal fluorides that coated vegetation across wide tracts of the island. Ingesting fluorides leads to fluorosis, a crippling disease to which sheep and cows are especially prone. Most of the human victims probably died of starvation. However, archaeologists who exhumed burials from the time of Laki’s last devastating eruption found skeletal signs of fluorosis: bony nodules and spiky fibres in joints (see Archaeology and fluorine poisoning in EPN for December 2004). It is a repeat of Laki’s toxic ash eruption that Icelanders most fear. During 1783 there were widespread reports from northern Europe of a bluish, acrid smelling haze, probably rich in sulfur dioxide. Contrary to the cooling effect of sulfuric acid aerosols in the upper atmosphere, this acrid fog seems to have warmed the regional summer to possibly the hottest in several centuries. Followed by a bitterly cold winter, Laki’s distant effect was devastation of crops, famine and deaths from starvation. It was not restricted to Europe, drought and famine affecting Egypt, India and Japan at the same time, with an estimated global death toll of more than 2 million. This suggests that some of the sulfur dioxide did become trapped in the stratosphere as climatically cooling sulfuric acid droplets that spread over the whole Northern Hemisphere. There are few records of wind patterns from the mid 1780s, yet the filling of Europe’s skies with Icelandic dust in 2010 suggests that a similar, wind system prevailed in 1783 – clockwise from Iceland around a large anticyclone centred on western Britain.

When the Eyjafjallajoekull volcano last erupted in 920, 1612, and 1821-1823, the much larger subglacial volcano Katla, 25 km to the east, followed suit. Around 10 600 years ago Katla emitted 6 to 7 km3 of ash, recognisable in Scotland, Norway and in North Atlantic sediment cores. Many Icelanders regard Katla as potentially their most dangerous volcano.

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