Saturday, April 24, 2010

Rising to the Occasion

If you work in the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control, it's been a busy time, what with SARS and the Avian flu. Likewise at the SEC, the Securities and Exchange Commission. While disasters there may be more of the manmade variety, they are ubiquitous none the less. And so it goes at a gaggle of acronymed agencies, from the NHC (the National Hurricane Center), to FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the NTSB (the National Transportation Safety Board). Every day that you come to work there's a better than even money shot the something will happen that will force you to send out for lunch.

That's not the usually the case for the hardworking gang at the VAAC. At any of their nine locations around the globe, from Anchorage, Alaska to Wellington, New Zealand, their dedicated staffs come in, check their computers, weather maps and newswires, then likely spend the rest of the morning trying to figure which type of tea to brew. For normally there's not a lot to do. It's not that they don't see a lot of activity in their particular field of scientific study. It's just that most times things in their world don't amount to more than a hill of lava. That is, until this past week.

That's because VAAC stands for the Volcanic Ash Advisory Center. Set up by the UN in the nineties, each of the nine centers are actually run by the national weather forecasting organizations of the country in which they are based. They are tasked with improving forecasts regarding the locations of ash clouds from volcanic eruptions. Not just an academic exercise, the idea for the centers was driven by a potentially fatal situation that happened with a British Airways flight in 1982.

Known as the "British Airways Flight 9 Incident," it involved a 747 which flew through an ash cloud generated by the eruption of Mount Galunggung in Indonesia. Beginning with smoke in the cabin, it quickly progressed to all 4 engines cutting out. With just 23 minutes of glide time until the plane crashed, the pilots steered the plane around mountains toward a water "landing." But 14 minutes after the first engine cut off they began to restart, enabling the crew to regain control and make an emergency landing. It's worth noting the announcement to passengers by Captain Eric Moody: "Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them under control. I trust you are not in too much distress."

An almost identical incident in 1989 with a KLM jet meant another pilot had to make a similar announcement. And so the VAAC was brought into being around the world. However, while there are perhaps 20 eruptions going on at any time in the world, with about 50 to 70 in any given year, few of these produce any major trouble or are located in air traffic lanes where they could cause a problem. But then you have Eyjafjallajökull.

Quiet since its last recorded eruption nearly 2 centuries ago in Iceland, the gang at the London VAAC were probably settling into another non-event when the first fissure opened on March 31. A little steam here, a little lava there. Indeed, overflights on April 13 showed nothing special. However, on the morning of April 14, an eruption plume rose to 4 miles over the site. Evacuations were ordered and planes were cautioned about getting too close... all very manageable. But then it kept getting worse.

As the plume spread, VAAC made its recommendation, and air traffic over Northern European was quickly shut down. As of this writing some flights are starting to be allowed, though with restrictions on routing. It's worth noting that the loosening of the reins was driven by a number of factors, including the result of test flights over the weekend, as well as the howling coming from the airlines as their economic losses mounted. But it was also the realization that the last time Eyjafjöll blew in 1821 it didn't stop for 2 years. That's a long time to keep people sleeping on cots in Heathrow Terminal 4.

For the scientists at VAAC, one can imagine their proud mothers finally boasting to their friends how their kids were not really in a dead end job studying dead volcanoes. And their newfound fame does give hope to colleagues at the EHP and the PTWC. For if the gang at the Volcanic Ash Advisory Center can hit it big, there may be hope yet for those toiling away at the Earthquake Hazards Program and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. Tomorrow might be their day to shine... they can only hope.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is glad he's not heading to Europe this week. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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