When the Eyjafjallajökull volcano exploded in Iceland in 2010, the resulting ash cloud shut down air travel over Europe for around a week, stranding thousands of travelers.
Now, research at the University of South Florida is helping figure out how often these kinds of damaging explosions may occur and what can be done to track the ash clouds and reduce their impact on air travel.
Professor Chuck Connor from the USF Department of Geology worked with colleagues from Leeds University and the University of St. Andrews on a study published in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.
"At USF, we do a couple of things with volcanic eruptions," Connor said. "One is look at where ash is going to go in the atmosphere when a volcanic eruption occurs, and we develop computer models for that. We also look longer term and try to understand the rates at which these eruptions happen and how frequently air travel might be disrupted or worse.
"The more we learn about this from the geologic record, we find out that these eruptions are more frequently occurring than we thought," Connor added.
Looking at samples from the earth's core taken from peatlands and lake beds around Europe, scientists found layers of volcanic ash. Through an examination of those layers, they found that the average rate of eruptions -- and the damaging ash clouds -- was around 44 years, with a margin of error of about 7 years. Previously, scientists had put the average rate at about 56 years.
"As infrastructure develops and the airline industry gets more complicated and jet engines get more complicated, (volcanic eruptions) can have more impact on everyday people," Connor said.
"The ash is like a tiny glass shard, and that's poison to a jet engine, so we don't want to fly commercial or military jets through these ash clouds," he continued. "They're sometimes really hard for pilots to see, so we really have to improve our forecasting about what's up there and how long it stays there."
In addition to his work in Iceland, Connor and other USF researchers and graduate students traveled to Nicaragua in 2015 to witness the eruption of the Momotombo volcano. You can hear him discuss what they studied and how their work in Nicaragua is continuing in the radio report above or on this appearance on University Beat on WUSF TV in April 2016: