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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Quantifying the global risk of volcanic eruptions to the airline industry


Volcanic ash is a major safety and economic hazard for aviation. 10 years after the multi-billion dollar economic losses associated with the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption, there has been no considered cross-airline engineering solution, or financial strategy for how to deal with the existential threat of volcanic eruptions in a connected world sustained by the freedoms of shared airspace. This project will draw together the expert inter-disciplinary team required to perform the first review of lessons learned, remaining challenges, engineering solutions, and financial models for coping with the next event(s). Within the timeframe of the project, we will use deterministic ash dispersal and climate models to produce example probabilistic risk maps for the busiest flight paths on Earth in the case of large eruptions from Iceland and Italy. These will underpin the development of a financial planning strategy, validated against the 2010 event, and proposals for the cross-airline insurance model that will determine the options available to the industry. To achieve these impactful goals, the project brings together leading volcanologists, jet engine engineers, world leaders in aviation policy and governance, and economists expert in managing risk. This project pushes the intellectual boundaries of how to deal with unpredictable inter-dependent, exogenous risks.

Term: Epiphany 2021

Principal Investigator: Dr Fabian Wadsworth, Assistant Professor, Earth Sciences,
Principal Investigator: Professor Julian Williams, Durham Business School,

Project Description

On the 10-year anniversary of the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull (Iceland) eruption that disrupted European airspace and brought eruption hazards into sharp focus, this project aims to quantify and communicate the risk posed by large, moving volcanic ash clouds to an ever-growing airline industry. This grand challenge will allow us to propose strategies to industry stakeholders for financial risk planning and aversion. Volcanic phenomena are perhaps the only natural disasters that can result in airspace shut down for periods of days to months, disrupting our expectation of sustained global connectivity and ease of movement – an expectation that defines modernity.

In the past 30 years, there have been over 250 encounters between jet aircraft and airborne volcanic ash with variably disastrous results, and almost every large explosive eruption results in local or widespread closure of airspace in transient ‘no fly’ zones. The most notable example: the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull (Iceland) resulted in the largest shut down of European airspace since World War II, 91 reported cases of aircraft encountering airborne ash during flight, and incurred an estimated €1.3 billion in direct commercial losses [1]. The eruptions that have framed the conversation between scientists, governmental or international policy makers and airlines, are far from the largest eruptions that our planet produces. The airline industry, and society in general, have no airspace planning or insurance in place for the eventuality of moderate to large eruptions on Earth.

In the absence of a near-future effective engineering solution to the detrimental effects of ash sticking to jet engine parts (see work by co-PI Wadsworth, e.g. [2,3]), the most important basic unknown in an eruption scenario is the dose of volcanic ash (the mass per volume per second) to which an aircraft engine will be exposed in a given flight path [4]. Unfortunately, for any given volcano, the amount of ash produced and the local meteorological conditions are sufficiently variable to confer significant uncertainty on a purely deterministic prediction of this dose a priori, and most simulations cannot be run sufficiently quickly to be used during real time crisis scenarios on the timescale of individual flights. For these reasons, the most promising avenue for rigorous quantification of the risk to aircraft, is to find a probabilistic approach for any flight path worldwide. Efforts to achieve this have only just begun, and to date are limited to individual sites and isolated flight paths (e.g. [5]), which is not sufficient for airlines to make commercial decisions for multiple flight paths or simultaneous eruptions around the world.

This IAS sponsored major project is designed to assemble a team who can solve the problem of volcanic eruptions in the context of global flight paths. The project has three clear principal objectives achievable within the 3-month project:

  1. To produce an inter-disciplinary review of the effectiveness of work done in the 10 years since the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption. This review will be exhaustive in that it will include the challenges and solutions involved in the engineering, risk mapping, financial planning, insurance models, and underpinning philosophy of a probabilistic approach to risk forecasts in general. It will draw from lessons learned in other arenas of airline securities, existential threat, and risk planning, such as threats of terrorism. This review will serve as a state-of-the-art for policy and decision makers. Such an undertaking cannot be achieved without the cross-discipline collaboration of members of this project.
  2. To use existing suites of deterministic models of eruption scenarios at active volcanoes (those identified by the Global Volcanism Program and of concern to the International Airways Volcano Watch) using an operational volcanic ash dispersal model (with the London Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre) to create probabilistic forecasts of eruption clouds. The models will be converted to a risk rating map for airspace. This will be performed with a firm philosophical underpinning through collaboration with CHESS members.
  3. Using the output from (2), we can develop quantitative financial risk planning strategies for impact mitigation for the case of no-fly periods over portions of commercial airspace, and use this to explore the question: who should bear the burden of cost in the event of airspace closures over continents, hemispheres, or the whole Earth?

To achieve these 3 central goals, the project investigators will focus on the discrete activities, which will form sessions in our international IAS workshop, and sub-themes for the IAS seminar series.

Activity 1: Current industry problems and solutions

The project will frame the physical problem associated with ash ingestion to different types of commercial jet engine. Key considerations here are ash particle size distributions, ash concentration, ash chemical composition, engine temperatures during cruise, take-off and landing, and air-flow speeds in the jet combustion chambers. IAS Fellows and members of DCSM and Earth Sciences (Dr Wadsworth, Professor Llewellin, Dr Kusumaatmaja) will synthesise what is thus far fragmented information about (1) the physical problems facing engineers and (2) the suites of proposed solutions including new resistant ceramic coatings for turbine blades. The key outcomewill be an answer to the question: is the development of ash-resistant aircraft worth the development and implementation costs? Other Fellows will assess the price-per-passenger cost of implementing solutions across airlines globally, including consideration the possible future of engine design. One potential strategy for the industry to offset potential losses in the event of eruptions is clearly technological, and a strategy that re-casts engine research and development as a risk mitigation cost, may be a tenable component of the solution that is not currently implemented.

Activity 2: Simulation and risk mapping

The entire team will work with external collaborators F. Prata (Barcelona Supercomputing Centre) and B. Devenish (UK Met Office) to compile existing volcanic ash dispersal simulation results for likely eruption sites [e.g. 5]. These will be converted to probability density functions of ash concentration for each eruption that evolve in time and space. This in turn will allow probability of a given integrated ash dose for any computed optimal flight path to be output. Outcome: a risk-rating map for flight paths crossing potential large eruption clouds. Probabilistic models are appealing as they allow decisions to be informed by quantitative forecasts; however, there are potential philosophical concerns about the use of probabilities to express uncertainties in complex simulation

Activity 3: An industry and government-facing financial plan

To date, there are no cross-industry financial planning strategies for the eventuality of an eruption similar to the 2010 event, or larger. And yet such events are not uncommon. The project will build on the lessons learned from the financial planning strategies borne of the existential threat of terrorism in the wake of the 9/11 attacks (see work by project investigator Professo Willimas [9]), which represented a transient, but large scale and costly shut-down of airspace. Volcanic eruptions require different, but cognate approaches, not least because natural phenomena represent global risk, but are exogenous in so far as they are not influenced by the human response to them. Within the 3 month period, Professor Williams will work with the rest of the team to produce a robust roadmap to what successful financial planning entails for this case, informed by the risk mapping (Activity 3). Outcome: the team will answer the question, how should insurance funds be sourced in a global market of airlines? As a member of the SESAR SJU consortium within the Single European Sky air traffic management joint undertaking, Durham University is uniquely placed to address these financial problems.

This project will underpin IAS publications associated with each activity, an exhaustive report to the International Airways Volcano Watch, and a wider bid for funding from the project team (e.g. ERC-Synergy), to undertake extended, global-scale probabilistic modelling implement these new approaches across active volcanoes worldwide in direct collaboration with airlines. This will ultimately result in aggregate risk forecasts that include the inevitable industry growth over the next decade, and which could affect policy change via the European Aviation Safety Agency and the International Airways Volcano Watch.