Volcanic ash monitoring goes three-dimensional

April 11, 2011


When Assistant Research Professor Peter Webley arrived at the Geophysical Institute in 2005 he wondered why volcanological data was plotted in two dimensions when it was being computed in three dimensions. At a point when virtual globes were gaining mainstream momentum through programs like Google Earth, it seemed logical to use real-time imaging to display volcanic activity rather than static graphs. 


Webley’s question led to action and the scientist has since developed a way to integrate a computerized volcanic ash dispersal model named Puff with Google Earth. 


“Plug it all in and press play,” Webley said. “It doesn’t require you to plot data yourself.” 


By using the three-dimensional geographical program Google Earth, the scientist was able to combine different data streams to create an all-inclusive display of a volcanic event on a virtual globe. 


To demonstrate the benefit of merging the two programs, Webley used the well-documented 1989 KLM airliner encounter with a volcanic ash cloud spewed from Alaska’s Redoubt Volcano. The result is a spatial and temporal understanding of where the Boeing 747 began to malfunction in the ash cloud. This information helps scientists establish an idea of how thick ash concentration must be in order to impact an airliner. 


This vein of research is tremendously helpful to the aviation community, as well as state and federal officials, as it will improve predictions and help mitigate volcanic hazards. The eruption of Eyjafjallajokull Volcano in early 2010 is a stark reminder of how broad the impacts can be when a large swath of airspace is virtually shut down. Eruption of the Icelandic volcano, and the resulting ash cloud, impacted an entire continent, spurring days of cancelled flights and socio-economic upheaval throughout Europe. 


While scientists like Webley have a new tool to assist their research, the general public benefits from this program as well. Anywhere there is an Internet connection, people can log on and view a volcanic eruption to see how an ash cloud travels above the landscape. This ability, enhanced by the popularity of Google Earth, may elicit interest in geophysics among gamers and computer-savvy youth.


“My hope is that interest in this program will feed down to the (K-12) school level,” Webley said.