Of airplanes and ash clouds: What we've learned since Eyjafjallajökull

The havoc created when Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull Volcano erupted in 2010 and closed trans-Atlantic and northern European airspace for days also created research opportunities. Scientists, engineers and the airline industry have been working together to figure out how to keep the aviation system going when volcanic ash can’t be avoided.
02 Apr 2017

Warning: Ash Ahead!

One of the next-generation tactics being pursued by engineers is the use of ash-sensing equipment installed on airplanes that could warn of an ash cloud ahead and allow pilots time to adjust their flight path to avoid the cloud. “If you’re driving a car and you see a hazard up ahead, you can navigate around it,” says Fred Prata of the University of Oxford in England. “Every aircraft has radar equipment with which [pilots] can see weather systems and fly around them. This is the same concept, but adapted to image volcanic ash.”

02 Apr 2017

Ash vs. airplanes

Between 1953 and 2009,* there were 129 reported incidents of airplane-ash encounters, with 79 of those causing some degree of airframe or engine damage. Twenty-six involved significant or severe damage, and nine involved some degree of engine shutdown during flight. Most of the encounters occurred within 24 hours of the onset of ash production during an eruption and within 1,000 kilometers of the source volcano. All flights landed safely.

02 Apr 2017

Benchmarks: March 11–13, 1888: The Great Blizzard of 1888 Paralyzes New York City

On Tuesday, March 13, 1888, the streets of New York City were nearly unrecognizable. What had been well-lit homes and storefronts, bustling with shoppers, families, workers and businessmen just two days before, now looked like a frozen battlefield, pummeled by a blizzard whose force had taken the city by surprise. The streets were clogged with deep snow and debris from signs, broken wires, downed poles, trees, and carts that had been abandoned as people fled to shelter. The few people who were out stumbled through deep snow drifts, fighting against a brutal icy wind; some never made it to safety.

11 Mar 2017

Gravity changes may warn of large earthquakes

Large earthquakes alter the planet’s gravitational field by displacing big portions of the crust. In a new study looking at earthquake-induced gravity signals produced by Japan’s magnitude-9 Tohoku quake in 2011, researchers conclude that such signals may prove useful in earthquake early warning systems.

10 Mar 2017

Soil moisture may help predict power outages in hurricanes

Power outages, most often caused by trees and branches falling on electric lines and transformers, are one of the most debilitating aspects of hurricanes, knocking out power to large numbers of people and businesses. In a new effort to improve modeling of where and when power outages caused by falling trees will occur during hurricanes, researchers are making use of frequent measurements of soil moisture provided by NASA’s SMAP (Soil Moisture Active Passive) mission, which began collecting data in spring 2015. 

08 Mar 2017

Kaikoura quake jumped from fault to fault in New Zealand

A magnitude-7.8 earthquake struck New Zealand’s South Island at about midnight on Nov. 14, 2016, causing two fatalities, triggering a tsunami and multiple landslides, and destroying infrastructure across the region. Known as the Kaikoura earthquake, it is the largest quake to hit New Zealand since 2009, and it appears that the rupture jumped from one fault to another multiple times as it propagated. The event is still being investigated, but at the time EARTH went to press, at least 10 faults are reportedly thought to have been involved.

06 Mar 2017

Chinese air pollution clears up mystery of London's 1952 hazardous haze

In December 1952, a fatal fog crept through London for almost five days, smothering the city in a yellow haze that reeked of rotten eggs. The “Great Smog,” as it was called, caused up to 12,000 deaths and left more than 150,000 people hospitalized in the worst air pollution event in European history. The calamity sparked the British Parliament to pass the Clean Air Act in 1956, but the exact chemical processes that caused the event have remained a mystery, until now.

03 Mar 2017

Assessing how well earthquake hazard maps work: Insights from weather and baseball

Seismologists can gain insights about how well earthquake hazard maps work and how to improve them from other forecasting applications, like weather forecasting and baseball statistics. 

28 Feb 2017

Comment: Atmospheric rivers increase water supply in California — but only to a point

Atmospheric rivers can cause floods; their absence can cause droughts. How can water managers adapt to capture and store floodwaters brought by these enormous storms for later use?

10 Feb 2017