Ban on commercial flights due to volcano eruption overcautious: leading expert (3)

22:11, April 19, 2010      

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While aviation authorities argue with airline companies as to whether the shutdown of European airspace was justified, scientists like Rosenfeld are trying to improve ways of predicting such volcanic activity and improving the science so it is possible to measure the potential dangers posed by the ash clouds.

Rosenfeld agrees that one of the differences between the desert sands and the ash is the composition and the materials spewed by volcanoes can be a real danger to aircraft, as gooey residual lava interferes with engines.

In terms of forecasting when a volcano is about to erupt, he said the current methods are not totally accurate. However, once can monitor volcanic activity and when there are increases, it is possible to prepare a few weeks in advance.

That having been said, the last time the Icelandic volcano erupted was 190 years ago and for the last two years there has been heightened activity but only now did it actually erupt.

There has been concern that a larger volcano in the Eyjafjallajokull area may be about to erupt but because this is not an exact science all the experts seem able to say is that this will not take place in the next week or so.

Even if experts predict a volcano is about to erupt, they cannot say just how big that eruption will be and for how long it will last.

On the aviation front, while Rosenfeld maintains planes should have continued flying, he says that there is currently not enough information available to accurately assess the extent of potential damage to aircraft.

"We don't have sufficient knowledge about what are the safe levels of the size and amounts of volcanic particles. Because of that, you take very wide margins of safety," he said.

If the science was more precise then the areas where flying was banned could have been much more limited, he added.

Britain sent a research aircraft towards the Icelandic clouds to collect particles for examination. Aircraft companies also sent empty planes into the danger zone to monitor the potential damage.

"They couldn't find any scratches on the airplanes, which supports my thinking that we are overly cautious," Rosenfeld said.

According to the expert, the decisions not to fly this time are based on guesstimates rather than science and the sooner advances are made in this direction the less the likelihood of a repeat performance of this week's aviation mayhem.

Source: Xinhua
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