Stanford Progressive

Volcanic Ash Clouds European Officials’ Judgment

By Ilias Karim, published August, 2010

On the 14th of April, the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted for the second time this year. As lava reached the surface and was chilled by a glacial ice cap, it fragmented into small glass particles that were carried up more than 5 miles in the volcano’s eruption plume. Winds carried the massive ash cloud towards the rest of Europe, compelling the London Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre (VAAC) to issue an advisory to European aviation authorities that grounded nearly all flights over, from, and to Europe for the next week.

The unprecedented disruption in aviation—the largest since World War II—has many wondering whether closing European airspace for so long was an overreaction. Volcanic ash reduces visibility and can damage an airplane by entering and damaging its jet engines, but small amounts of volcanic ash in the atmosphere are not a safety risk as much as an economic risk. If the volcanic ash in the atmosphere is not very dense, it merely increases maintenance costs for airlines, which might prefer those costs to the costs of not flying at all. The extensive airspace closure inflicted an estimated cost of 1.5 to 2.5 billion Euros, and disrupted the travel plans of millions of passengers.

Airline officials do not think the European flight ban was necessary. Airports Council International Europe (ACI) and the Association of European Airlines have both openly questioned the disruption. Various spokesmen for Air Berlin, Lufthansa, and KLM have stated that the threat was non-existent, and found no problems with their aircraft after they conducted test flights. The airline officials suggested that the decision to close airspace across Europe was due to an over-reliance on VAAC computer simulations of the ash cloud’s movement. Detailed computer-generated maps released by the VAAC showed exactly which areas would be affected by the ash cloud.

The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull and subsequent disruption of flight traffic highlights our delicate dependence on technology in more than one way. The reliance on computer simulations has drawn a lot of criticism from Americans and Europeans alike. Yale professor of Computer Science David Gelernter warns in an article published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ, the leading national German newspaper) of a crippling intellectual passivity caused by our absolute faith in software models. Frank Schirrmacher, influential German author and co-publisher of FAZ, warns even more sensationally that the ash cloud is a portent of doom in a future where people substitute computer algorithms and simulations for their own judgment. In two sentences, he goes from describing the personal data on Facebook, blogs, emails, and from online purchases to imagining a future where livelihoods and airplanes alike are arbitrarily grounded.

Schirrmacher’s opinion is indicative of a lingering skepticism palpable in Germany and other parts of Europe about the benefits of the information age, rather than being an objective appraisal of the science involved in tracking the ash cloud. One can hardly fault a computer for running a simulation according to the parameters it received, though. If there was indeed an overreaction in shutting down all of European airspace, the fault lies with the decision makers at the VAAC and with aviation authorities across Europe who misinterpreted the computer simulation output.

Our knowledge of how volcanic ash dissipates in the atmosphere and effects jet engines has never been better. The problem is, the parameters for what conditions were safe for flight were too conservative. In this case, decision makers failed to communicate sufficiently both with the scientists measuring and simulating the movement of the volcanic ash cloud (with the help of computers) and with the aviation engineers about the risks of flying with low levels of ash in the atmosphere. These decision makers opted to avoid an illusory safety risk in favor of a significant economic cost.

We have seen the disconnect between decision makers and scientists all too often in the United States, for instance when Reagan began research on the “Star Wars” missile defense system that software engineers and physicists told him was implausible. We are still paying for that decision today. With adequate technical knowledge, a billion Euro and millions of inconveniences may have been saved in Europe this month. The lesson to be learned from the European airspace closure following the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull is that we need more scientifically-trained decision makers to replace uninformed, risk-averse politicians on both sides of the Atlantic.

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