Volcanic Ash Redux

My very first blog post – Volcanic Ash is Financially Risky – pointed out that the European authorities did a foolish thing by shutting down European air space without even bothering to test if the ash had made it dangerous to fly.  They assumed that it was dangerous because of only one other known incident of a jet flying through a different ash cloud years ago. The point of my blog entry was not that they should have kept the skies open, as some have interpreted it.  Rather, the point is that they should have closed the skies and immediately ordered tests to verify their assumption that it’s dangerous to fly.  Instead, they waited two or three days until the Dutch had had enough of this ridiculous approach and flew tests themselves.  Lo and behold – it was safe!

A recent article points to a study that has shown that in fact the first few days of ash from the volcano produced very dangerous ash and it was therefore a good thing, in hindsight, that they closed airports.  How can I say this politely…let’s try this: I’m afraid they may have it backwards.  Of course it was the right thing to close the airspace as soon as the eruption happened and ash was detected in the air.  No question.  But the cost of that decision was huge, and when that much money, effort, frustration and general “angst” is on the line, you better be sure of you decision.  How can you be sure?  You Test.  In this case, it’s obvious: you send drones or brave volunteers to fly through the ash – exactly what the Dutch airlines eventually did.  Why did the government authority that shut the space not do that?  Why did it take a commercial airlines to figure this out?  It’s possible that it’s because the airline had a lot more to lose than the authority.

In any event, this new article seems to say “told you so” and that’s just not the point.  But now that we know that in the first few days of a volcano it produces ash that’s quite dangerous, I expect that the next time we have a volcanic eruption the local authorities may be tempted to not test because “we already know it’s dangerous from that study back in 2011.”  Instead, I hope that someone injects some skepticism into the process and demands that assumptions be tested.

2 Responses to Volcanic Ash Redux

  1. Pingback: Learning from Mistakes « Risk-ology

  2. Gabriel Lee says:

    I remember circling St. Helens in a 707 in 1980. It was after the main eruption so it was probably mostly smoke and/or steam, though it did blow a few more times that year. Wreaked some havoc on car engines too, it was so fine it went right through air cleaners.

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