Research shows part of Alaska inundated by ancient megafloods

This map shows the flood-formed dunes in the area of Wasilla, Alaska. Flood waters flowed from right to left across the image. The dunes reach more than 110 feet high and are spaced more than a half-mile apart. -  Michael Wiedmer
This map shows the flood-formed dunes in the area of Wasilla, Alaska. Flood waters flowed from right to left across the image. The dunes reach more than 110 feet high and are spaced more than a half-mile apart. – Michael Wiedmer

New research indicates that one of the largest fresh-water floods in Earth’s history happened about 17,000 years ago and inundated a large area of Alaska that is now occupied in part by the city of Wasilla, widely known because of the 2008 presidential campaign.

The event was one of at least four “megafloods” as Glacial Lake Atna breached ice dams and discharged water. The lake covered more than 3,500 square miles in the Copper River Basin northeast of Anchorage and Wasilla.

The megaflood that covered the Wasilla region released as much as 1,400 cubic kilometers, or 336 cubic miles, of water, enough to cover an area the size of Washington, D.C., to a depth of nearly 5 miles. That water volume drained from the lake in about a week and, at such great velocity, formed dunes higher than 110 feet, with at least a half-mile between crests. The dunes appear on topographical maps but today are covered by roads, buildings and other development.

“Your mind doesn’t get around dunes of that size. Obviously the water had to be very deep to form them,” said Michael Wiedmer, an Anchorage native who is pursuing graduate studies in forest resources at the University of Washington.

Wiedmer is the lead author of a paper describing the Wasilla-area megaflood, published in the May edition of the journal Quaternary Research. Co-authors are David R. Montgomery and Alan Gillespie, UW professors of Earth and space sciences, and Harvey Greenberg, a computer specialist in that department.

By definition, a megaflood has a flow of at least 1 million cubic meters of water per second (a cubic meter is about 264 gallons). The largest known fresh-water flood, at about 17 million cubic meters per second, originated in Glacial Lake Missoula in Montana and was one of a series of cataclysmic floods that formed the Channeled Scablands of eastern Washington.

The megaflood from Glacial Lake Atna down what is now the Matanuska River to the Wasilla region might have had a flow of about 3 million cubic meters per second. Another suspected Atna megaflood along a different course to the Wasilla region, down the Susitna River, might have had a flow of about 11 million cubic meters per second. The researchers also found evidence for two smaller Atna megafloods, down the Tok and Copper rivers.

Wiedmer, who retired from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in 2006, began the research in 2005 when he discovered pygmy whitefish living in Lake George, a glacial lake 50 miles from Anchorage. The lake has essentially emptied numerous times in its history and was not thought to support much life. Examination of physical traits indicate those fish are more closely related to pygmy whitefish in three other mountain lakes, all remnants of Lake Atna, than they are to any others of that species. Their existence in Lake George, some distance from the other lakes, is one piece of evidence for a megaflood from Lake Atna.

“Lake Atna linked up with four distinct drainages, and we think that helped it act like a pump for freshwater organisms,” he said.

The megaflood also could explain some of the catastrophic damage that occurred in the magnitude 9.2 Great Alaskan Earthquake of 1964. Wiedmer noted that much of Anchorage is built on marine sediments, and one layer of those sediments liquefied and collapsed, allowing the layer above to slide toward the sea. As the upper layer moved toward the water, structures built on top of it collapsed.

Though the marine sediments extend about 200 feet deep, the failure only occurred within a narrow 3-foot layer. Scientists later discovered that layer had been infused with fresh water, which was unexpected in sediments deposited under salt water. The ancient megaflood could account for the fresh water.

“We suspect that this is evidence of the flood that came down the Matanuska,” Wiedmer said. “The location is right at the mouth of where the flood came down, and the time appears to be right.”

Iceland volcano: Researcher compiles first high-res images; plume receding but internal heat up

Day time plume compositional image derived from the thermal infrared data - Credit: University of Pittsburgh
Day time plume compositional image derived from the thermal infrared data – Credit: University of Pittsburgh

High-resolution visible and thermal infrared images captured by a joint NASA-Japanese satellite sensor and compiled by University of Pittsburgh volcanologist Michael Ramsey provide the first clear glimpse of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull that has disrupted air travel worldwide since it began erupting April 14.

Ramsey, an associate professor in Pitt’s Department of Geology and Planetary Science, collected images taken by NASA’s Earth-orbiting Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflectance Radiometer (ASTER) instrument showing that although the volcano’s infamous ash plume is receding, its internal temperature is rising.

The images are available on Pitt’s Web site at http://www.pitt.edu/~mramsey/data/iceland. Eyjafjallajökull appears on the left side of the images as a bright spot with a cloud emanating from it.

Ramsey, who is available to comment on the images and Eyjafjallajökull’s activity, is a member of the ASTER science team and specializes in remote sensors and visualization as applied to volcanoes. His work with ASTER usually centers on the north Pacific region, but the satellite was redirected to Iceland to help scientists at the Iceland GeoSurvey (ÍSOR) who cannot safely approach the volcano. Ramsey has been sharing the images with colleagues at ÍSOR and volcanologists worldwide.

Unlike standard weather-satellite images, the high-resolution pictures from ASTER can help scientists determine the plume’s chemical composition and thickness, the location of lava flows, and the volcano’s internal temperature, Ramsey explained. The data can help better monitor the volcano’s activity, particularly its worrisome effect on the nearby and much larger volcano Katla, which in the ASTER images is seen as a large off-color area to the right of Eyjafjallajökull. In the past, Katla has erupted every time Eyjafjallajökull has, though the ASTER images so far show no signs of an imminent explosion, Ramsey said.

Scientists study ‘glaciovolcanoes,’ mountains of fire and ice, in Iceland, British Columbia, US

The eruption in Iceland after it penetrated Eyjafjallajökull's icecap; new ash covers the glacier. - Credit: Marco Fulle
The eruption in Iceland after it penetrated Eyjafjallajökull’s icecap; new ash covers the glacier. – Credit: Marco Fulle

Glaciovolcanoes, they’re called, these rumbling mountains where the orange-red fire of magma meets the frozen blue of glaciers.

Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano, which erupted recently, is but one of these volcanoes. Others, such as Katla, Hekla and Askja in Iceland; Edziza in British Columbia, Canada; and Mount Rainier and Mount Redoubt in the U.S., are also glaciovolcanoes: volcanoes covered by ice.

“When an ice-covered volcano erupts, the interplay among molten magma, ice and meltwater can have catastrophic results,” says Sonia Esperanca, program director in the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s Division of Earth Sciences, which funds research on glaciovolcanoes.

In Iceland last week, scientists were well prepared for the floods, called “jökulhlaups,” that can happen after a glaciovolcano blows and melts its glacial covering. The floods were followed by tons of ash ejected into the atmosphere.

Most of the rest of the world, however, was unaware that an eruption from a small, northern island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean could freeze air transportation and stop global commerce in its tracks.

That, say NSF-funded scientists Ben Edwards at Dickinson College and Ian Skilling at the University of Pittsburgh, is the nature of glaciovolcanoes.

Understanding volcano-ice interactions occupies much of Edwards’ and Skilling’s daily lives.

They’re working at Mt. Edziza in British Columbia, Canada, and in Iceland to find out how glaciovolcanic deposits–rock fragments strewn for miles after an ice-covered volcano erupts–are formed.

Volcano-ice interaction presents unique types of hazards, say the geologists, but what’s left behind after an eruption can also serve as a window into our geologic past.

Studies of glaciovolcanoes’ deposits are helping scientists get a better handle on Earth’s long-term climate cycles. The volcanic shards are “proxies” for climates of the past.

A key to using these rocks as proxies is the ability to correctly interpret fragmentation of lava and other textural and chemical features. From these, scientists estimate snow and ice thicknesses before and during a glaciovolcano’s eruption. The quantity of ash and flowing lava changes as the eruption progresses, until magma stops being formed.

Glaciovolcanic deposits are identifiable long after an eruption ends. Pillow lava, for example, which usually forms on the ocean floor, is sometimes found high atop mountains in British Columbia and Iceland, and in the Antarctic.

These round tubes of fossilized lava, coated with shiny black volcanic glass, are indications of volcanoes that once erupted beneath ice or water.

By noting the elevation of pillow lavas on mountains or high ridges, geologists can better determine the thickness of surrounding ice.

“Pillow lavas might well be forming right now in the ice-bound caverns on top of Eyjafjallajökull,” says Edwards. “By analyzing the gas content dissolved in pillow lavas’ glass, we can also estimate the thickness of the overlying ice at the time of their formation.”

When hot lava melts ice quickly, water can mix with magma, flash to steam, and produce powerful explosions of fine volcanic ash, according to Edwards.

“These fine particles can be carried much higher into the atmosphere than ash from similar ‘dry’ eruptions,” he says.

When superheated fragments of liquid magma hit cold air, they freeze into billions and billions of particles, driven into the atmosphere by the power of the volcano’s eruption.

“Although studies of glaciovolcanism are currently focused on longer-term questions of climate change, the research is helping scientists understand all active and dormant ice-covered volcanoes, including many in North America,” says Esperanca.

Several volcanoes in the Cascades, such as Mount Rainier, and volcanoes in Alaska, like the recently active Mount Redoubt, have significant ice cover.

Research on the links between these volcanoes and their ice-covered surfaces is giving scientists and emergency planners critical information.

“We need more studies of present and old eruptions to be prepared to respond to a volcano-ice crisis in North America–or elsewhere around the globe,” says Esperanca.

While many geologists are using Iceland as an important way to inform the public about possible dangers from volcanoes, glaciovolcanologists are chomping at their rock hammers–and ice chisels.

They’re waiting for Eyjafjallajökull to take a rest. Then they can creep ever closer, eventually getting a look at newly formed glaciovolcanic deposits.

To Edwards and Skilling, the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull shows how complex the dance of a volcano and a glacier can be.

Scientists find ancient asphalt domes off California coast

High-resolution bathymetry of extinct asphalt volcanoes at the dome site, collected using the autonomous underwater vehicle Sentry. Scale is in meters. - Image by Dana Yoerger, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
High-resolution bathymetry of extinct asphalt volcanoes at the dome site, collected using the autonomous underwater vehicle Sentry. Scale is in meters. – Image by Dana Yoerger, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

They paved paradise and, it turns out, actually did put up a parking lot. A big one. Some 700 feet deep in the waters off California’s jewel of a coastal resort, Santa Barbara, sits a group of football-field-sized asphalt domes unlike any other underwater features known to exist.

About 35,000 years ago, a series of apparent undersea volcanoes deposited massive flows of petroleum 10 miles offshore. The deposits hardened into domes that were discovered recently by scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and UC Santa Barbara (UCSB).

Their report-co-authored with researchers from UC Davis, the University of Sydney and the University of Rhode Island-appears online today (April 25) in the Journal Nature Geoscience. The work was funded by the National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Energy and the Seaver Institute.

“It was an amazing experience, driving along?and all of a sudden, this mountain is staring you in the face,” said Christopher M. Reddy, director of WHOI’s Coastal Ocean Institute and one of the study’s senior authors, as he described the discovery of the domes using the deep submersible vehicle Alvin. Moreover, the dome was teeming with undersea life. “It was essentially an oasis,” he said, “almost like an artificial reef.”

What really piqued the interest of Reddy-a marine geochemist who studies oil spills-was the chemical composition of the dome: “very unusual asphalt material,” he said. “There aren’t that many opportunities to study oil that’s been sitting around on the bottom of the ocean for 35,000 years.”

Reddy’s unique chance came courtesy of UCSB earth scientist and lead author David L. Valentine, who first came upon the largest of the structures-named Il Duomo-and brought back a chunk of the brittle, black material in 2007 from an initial dive in Alvin, which WHOI operates for the US Navy. Valentine and Reddy were on a cruise aboard the WHOI-operated research vessel Atlantis, following up on undersea mapping survey by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) and the work of UCSB earth scientist Ed Keller.

“The largest [dome] is about the size of two football fields, side by side and as tall as a six-story building,” Valentine said. Alvin’s robotic arm snapped off a piece of the unusual formation, secured it in a basket and delivered it to Reddy aboard Atlantis.

“I was sleeping,” Reddy chuckled. “Somebody woke me up and wanted me to look at the rocks and test them.”

It turned out to be quite an awakening. “I was amazed at how easy it was to break,” Reddy recalls, “which confirmed it wasn’t solid rock” and lent credence to Keller’s theory that these structures might be made of asphalt.

Without access to the sophisticated equipment in his Woods Hole lab, Reddy employed a “25-cent glass tube, the back of a Bic pen and a little nail polish remover” to analyze the crusty substance. He used the crude tools like a mortar and pestle to grind the rock, “and literally within several minutes, it became a thick oil.”

“This immediately said to me that this was asphalt,” Reddy said. “And I remember turning to Dave [Valentine] and saying, ‘We’ve got to back. Please take me back there'” to the dome.

After making some schedule changes, Valentine cleared the way for him and Reddy to take Alvin back to several sites in 2007. This work also set the stage for a follow-up study in September 2009, when the investigators returned to the domes with Alvin and the Autonomous Undersea Vehicle (AUV) Sentry to study the unique structures. They were joined by, among others, WHOI collaborators Dana Yoerger, Richard Camilli and Robert K. Nelson and Oscar Pizarro, now at the University of Sydney.

“With that combination, we were able to go in and do very detailed mapping of the site and very detailed sampling at the seafloor,” Valentine said. Using mass spectrometers and radiocarbon dating in their respective laboratories, the scientists were able to confirm the nature and age of the domes.

“To me, as an oil-spill chemist, this was very exciting,” said Reddy. “I got to find out what oil looks like after? 35,000 years.”

What it looked like was “incredibly weathered,” said Reddy. “That means nature had taken away a lot of compounds. These mounds of black material were the last remnants of oil that exploded up from below. To see nature doing this on its own was an unbelievable finding.”

A few asphalt-like undersea structures have been reported, says Valentine, “but not anything exactly like these?no large structures like we see here.” He estimates that the dome structures contain about 100,000 tons of residual asphalt and compares them to an underwater version of the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, complete with the fossils of ancient animals.

The researchers are not sure exactly why sea life has taken up residence around the asphalt domes, but one possibility is that because the oil has become benign over the years that some creatures are able to actually feed off it and get energy from it. They may also be “thriving” on tiny holes in the dome areas that release minute amounts of methane gas, Reddy says.

The scientists plan to continue studying the domed structures. “We have some very fundamental questions that remain,” Valentine says. “It would be nice to know what is going on deep down under these things.

“One future direction is to try and actually drill into them,” he says. “We also need to turn it over to some geologists to figure out where this oil is really coming from. More fundamentally, we’re going to look at the actual degradation of the oil by microorganisms and maybe even see what organisms are trapped in this?very much like the La Brea Tar Pits.”

From a chemical point of view, Reddy says he will continue to probe the question of exactly which of the chemicals that make up the domes “stayed around” all these years.

“Instead of this taking place at a refinery, nature used a variety of its own tools,” he said, to manufacture the asphalt substance. With some heating and a few chemical tweaks, he added, this is essentially the same material that paves highways and parking lots. After all, it is California.

Link between solar activity and the UK’s cold winters

A link between low solar activity and jet streams over the Atlantic could explain why, despite global warming trends, people in regions North East of the Atlantic Ocean might need to brace themselves for more frequent cold winters in years to come.

A new report published today, Thursday 15 April, in IOP Publishing’s Environmental Research Letters describes how we are moving into an era of lower solar activity which is likely to result in UK winter temperatures more like those seen at the end of the seventeenth century.

Lead author Mike Lockwood of the University of Reading said: “This year’s winter in the UK has been the 14th coldest in the last 160 years and yet the global average temperature for the same period has been the 5th highest. We have discovered that this kind of anomaly is significantly more common when solar activity is low.”

The new paper, ‘Are cold winters in Europe associated with low solar activity?’, differs from previous efforts to explain the UK’s recent cold winters by comparing the most comprehensive, but regionally specific, temperature dataset available (the Central England Temperature dataset) to the long-term behaviour of the Sun’s magnetic field, and to trends across the entire Northern Hemisphere.

The paper is being published now as the researchers have just had the opportunity to put this year’s data to the test and found that this year’s results fit well with the trends they have discovered.

The researchers suggest that the anomaly in Northern Europe’s winter temperatures could be to do with a phenomenon called ‘blocking’.

‘Blocking’ is related to the jet stream which brings winds from the west, over the Atlantic, and into Northern Europe but, over the past couple of winters, could have lost its way, for weeks at a time, in an ‘anticyclone’ before it reaches Europe.

The researchers have found strong correlations between weak solar activity and the occurrences of ‘blocking’. As the temperature is affected by a weak Sun so the wind’s patterns also change and, as the warmer westerly winds fail to arrive, the UK is hit by north-easterlies from the Arctic.

The researchers, from the Department of Meteorology at the University of Reading, the Science and Technology Facilities Council Space Science and Technology Department, and the Max-Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany, are keen to stress the regional and seasonal (European and winter) nature of their research.

Professor Mike Lockwood has explained that the trends do not guarantee colder winters but they do suggest that colder winters will become more frequent. He said: “If we look at the last period of very low solar activity at the end of the seventeenth century, we find the coldest winter on record in 1684 but, for example, the very next year, when solar activity was still low, saw the third warmest winter in the entire 350-year record.

“The results do show however that there are a greater number of cold UK winters when solar activity is low.”

Envisat keeping an eye on the Eyjafjallajoekull volcano

The development of the ash plume from Iceland's Eyjafjallajoekull volcano between April 17-20, 2010, is tracked in this series of Envisat images. On April 17 and 19, the brown-colored ash plume is visible traveling in a roughly southeasterly direction over the Atlantic Ocean by the prevailing western air current. By April 20, much less ash is visible spewing from the volcano. -  ESA
The development of the ash plume from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajoekull volcano between April 17-20, 2010, is tracked in this series of Envisat images. On April 17 and 19, the brown-colored ash plume is visible traveling in a roughly southeasterly direction over the Atlantic Ocean by the prevailing western air current. By April 20, much less ash is visible spewing from the volcano. – ESA

The development of the ash plume from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajoekull volcano between 17-20 April is tracked in this series of Envisat images.

On 17 and 19 April, the brown-colored ash plume is visible traveling in a roughly southeasterly direction over the Atlantic Ocean by the prevailing western air current. By 20 April, much less ash is visible spewing from the volcano.


In the latest Envisat image acquired on 21 April at 13:36 CEST, even less ash is visible. Envisat has been monitoring the volcano since its recent eruptions began on 20 March. To see the latest Envisat satellite images over the area, simply visit our MIRAVI website. MIRAVI, which is free and requires no registration, generates images from the raw data collected by Envisat’s Medium Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (MERIS) instrument and provides them online quickly after acquisition.

MERIS images provide visual clues of what is happening over the volcano and, furthermore, can provide information on the height of the ash plume in the atmosphere.

Scientists from the Free University of Berlin have developed an experimental algorithm for the retrieval of cloud-top height from measurements taken by MERIS between 17 – 19 April from 14:00 and 15:00 CEST.

The algorithm, which is operationally applied within the MERIS ground segment, is normally used to determine the height of clouds to support weather and precipitation forecasts. A similar algorithm, based on the exploitation of the height dependent oxygen absorption (~ 0.76 microns), is now being experimentally applied to determine the height of the ash cloud spewing from the volcanic eruption.

“We normally apply this method to clouds to determine their heights over ground. We have now applied the same technique to the ash plume from Iceland’s volcano. The results show that the method works, and we can now provide the ‘starting height’ of the ash cloud and hope to be able to better predict the ash distribution in the future,” said Prof. Juergen Fischer from the Free University of Berlin, who provided the height maps.

On 17 April, the ash plume reached a top height of more than 5 km close to its origin over the southern coast of Iceland with its top height dropping below 2 km as it travelled. On 19 April, the massive, wide-spread ash plume resided in the lower atmosphere close to the volcano with top heights below 2 km.

According to Prof. Fischer, these preliminary results agree with the volcanic plume heights established by research flights and forecasts by volcanic plume models. A more detailed algorithm dedicated to the height of volcanic ash clouds is currently under development.

Other satellite datasets as well as ground measurements are being used to measure the evolution of the ash cloud. To learn more about these, visit the links on the right.

Eyjafjallajökull ash cloud

After seismic activity in late 2009, Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland began to erupt on 20 March 2010. On 14 April 2010, an eruption under the ice cap created a plume of ash which rose to altitudes used by jet aircraft. Beginning on 15 April 2010 the plume caused the closure of airports and major disruption to air travel across NW Europe and between Europe and N. America. The Special Session will discuss the volcanological setting, atmospheric transport and use of predictive modeling of the ash plume, and the palaeorecord of Icelandic eruptions affecting Europe’s climate and economy. A panel discussion will explore the implications and precautionary lessons for Iceland and Europe.

Speakers:

Thor Thordason on Eyjafjallajökull Volcanology;

Andreas Stohl and the NILU flexpart team on Eyjafjallajökull Ash Plume Transport;

Fred Prata on Wider implications for the airline industry of the Eyjafjallajökull event.


There is also a tentative talk, Iceland’s impact on Europe, now and in the recent past.

In addition to an hour of experts speaking, there will be a panel discussion on “Europe’s vulnerability to volcanic events”

From ancient rocks to new knowledge of the universe

Thirty technical scientific sessions will generate discussions around new earth-science research at the 62nd annual meeting of The Geological Society of America’s Rocky Mountain Section, held in association with the Western South Dakota Hydrology Conference. South Dakota School of Mines and Technology is hosting the meeting, which is expected to draw more than 350 geoscientists to Rapid City, South Dakota, next week.

Oral sessions and posters will cover a variety of subjects, including paleontology, geologic hazards, geological studies in National Park Service areas, the geology of shale, mining and land use effects, surface water quality, GIS and remote sensing applications in the geosciences, and research at the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Lab (DUSEL) in Lead, SD.

The technical program begins at 8 a.m. on Wednesday and ends at 3:20 p.m. on Friday. Members of the media are invited to attend.

View session list at http://www.geosociety.org/sectdiv/rockymtn/2010mtg/techprog.htm.
To see the session schedule and view abstracts, click http://gsa.confex.com/gsa/2010RM/finalprogram/. Search the program by session number (from list at the first link above), or by title, author, or key words.

The scientific exchange will be enhanced with 11 pre- and post-meeting field trip options that highlight spectacular geology of the Black Hills and surrounding areas.

MEETING INFORMATION AND MEDIA REGISTRATION


Find complete meeting information at http://www.geosociety.org/sectdiv/rockymtn/2010mtg/.

Eligibility for media registration is as follows:

  • Working press representing bona fide, recognized news media with a press card, letter or business card from the publication.

  • Freelance science writers, presenting a current membership card from NASW, ISWA, regional affiliates of NASW, ISWA, CSWA, ACS, ABSW, EUSJA, or evidence of work pertaining to science published in 2009 or 2010.
  • PIOs of scientific societies, educational institutions, and government agencies.

Present media credentials onsite to William Cox, at the GSA registration desk on the second floor of the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, to obtain a badge for media access. Complimentary meeting registration covers attendance at all technical sessions and access to the exhibit hall. Journalists and PIOs must pay regular fees for paid luncheons and any short courses or field trips in which they participate.

Representatives of the business side of news media, publishing houses, and for-profit corporations must register at the main registration desk and pay the appropriate fees.

Volcanic ash research shows how plumes end up in the jet stream

A University at Buffalo volcanologist, an expert in volcanic ash cloud transport, published a paper recently showing how the jet stream — the area in the atmosphere that pilots prefer to fly in — also seems to be the area most likely to be impacted by plumes from volcanic ash.

“That’s a problem,” says Marcus I. Bursik, PhD, one of the foremost experts on volcanic plumes and their effect on aviation safety, “because modern transcontinental and transoceanic air routes are configured to take advantage of the jet stream’s power, saving both time and fuel.

“The interaction of the jet stream and the plume is likely a factor here,” says Bursik, professor of geology in the UB College of Arts and Sciences. “Basically, planes have to fly around the plume or just stop flying, as they have, as the result of this eruption in Iceland.”

In some cases, if the plume can be tracked well enough with satellites, pilots can steer around the plume, he notes, but that didn’t work in this case because the ash drifted right over Britain.

Bursik participated in the first meetings in the early 1990s between volcanologists and the aviation industry to develop methods to ensure safe air travel in the event of volcanic eruptions. He and colleagues authored a 2009 paper called “Volcanic plumes and wind: Jet stream interaction examples and implications for air traffic” in the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research.

“In the research we did, we found that the jet stream essentially stops the plume from rising higher into the atmosphere,” he says. “Because the jet stream causes the density of the plume to drop so fast, the plume’s ability to rise above the jet stream is halted: the jet stream caps the plume at a certain atmospheric level.

Bursik says that new techniques now in development will be capable of producing better estimates of where and when ash clouds from volcanoes will travel.

He and his colleagues have proposed a project with researchers at the University of Alaska that would improve tracking estimates to find out where volcanic ash clouds are going.

“What we get now is a mean estimate of where ash should be in atmosphere,” says Bursik, “but our proposal is designed to develop both the mean estimate and estimates of error that would be more accurate and useful. It could help develop scenarios that would provide a quantitative probability as to how likely a plane is to fly through the plume, depending on the route.”

Bursik also is working with other researchers at UB, led by UB geology professor Greg Valentine, on a project called VHub, a “cyber infrastructure for collaborative volcano research and mitigation.”

VHUB would speed the transfer of new tools developed by volcanologists to the government agencies charged with protecting the public from the hazards of volcanic eruptions. That international project, which Valentine heads up at UB, with researchers at Michigan Technological University and the University of South Florida, was funded recently by the National Science Foundation.

Icelandic volcanoes can be unpredictable and dangerous

If history is any indication, the erupting volcano in Iceland and its immense ash plume could intensify, says a Texas A&M University researcher who has explored Icelandic volcanoes for the past 25 years.

Jay Miller, a research scientist in the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program who has made numerous trips to the region and studied there under a Fulbright grant, says the ash produced from Icelandic volcanoes can be a real killer, which is why hundreds of flights from Europe have been cancelled for fear of engine trouble.

“What happens is that the magma from the volcano is around 1,200 degrees and it hits the water there, which is near freezing,” he explains. “What is produced is a fine ash that actually has small pieces of glass in it, and it can very easily clog up a jet engine. If you were to inhale that ash, it would literally tear up your lungs.”

Miller says most volcanoes in Iceland erupt only about every five years on average and are relatively mild, but history is repeating itself. Extremely large eruptions occurred there in 934 A.D. and again in 1783 that covered Europe with ash much like today.

“Ben Franklin was ambassador to France in 1783 and he personally witnessed the large ash clouds over Europe, and he later wrote that it was a year in which there was no summer,” Miller adds. “The big question now is, what happens next? It’s very possible this eruption could last for quite some time, but no one knows for sure. Volcanoes in that part of the world are very hard to predict.”