BUFFALO, N.Y. – 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
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
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
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
Bursik's co-authors on the jet stream paper are Shannon E. Kobs
and Aaron Burns, both former UB graduate students in geology, L.I.
Bazanova and I.V. Melekestves, of the Russian Academy of Sciences,
A. Kurbatov of the University of Maine, Orono, and D.C. Pieri of
the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at California Institute of
The research was funded by NSF, the National Aeronautics and
Space Administration and California Institute of Technology and
Science Applications International Corp.
Bursik and Valentine are members of the UB Center for GeoHazards
Studies at http://www.geohazards.buffalo.edu,
which is supporting the UB2020 goals in Extreme Events.