NOAA 2004-064
Contact: Kent Laborde

NOAA News Releases 2004
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The Office of the Federal Coordinator for Meteorology, the U.S. Department of Commerce unit charged with coordinating federal meteorological activities, is hosting the four-day Second International Conference on Volcanic Ash and Aviation Safety in Alexandria, Va., beginning today. The conference aims to identify requirements and opportunities for further improvements in each component of the coordinated, international mitigation system.

Conference attendees will discuss the substantial progress made in the technical, operational and scientific aspects of ash mitigation practices and attempt to move further through inter-agency and international partnerships to ensure the greatest return in reducing risks to safety and socioeconomic consequences.

“This conference gives us a forum for ensuring that results from research and development activities related to this life-threatening situation are communicated to the aviation community and translated into real-world benefits,” said Sam Williamson, federal coordinator for meteorology. “Because the risks and resources being addressed to mitigate them are international in scope, a conference emphasizing international participation allows us to leverage our efforts with others around the globe.”

Airborne volcanic ash poses a serious threat to aviation. More than 100 commercial and military aircraft have unexpectedly encountered volcanic ash clouds in flight. The consequences of these encounters include degraded engine performance (including flameout), loss of visibility and failure of critical navigational and operational instruments. Encounters have resulted in multiple engine failures, and disastrous crashes have been only narrowly averted. In addition to the threat to lives, aircraft damage with its attendant economic loss can be severe. In one case $80 million in damage occurred to a single aircraft that encountered a dense ash plume.

While the obvious mitigation strategy is for aircraft to avoid flying into an ash plume, avoidance requires knowing where an ash plume exists. Often, ash plumes simply look like normal clouds and many encounters occur at night. Pilots, dispatchers and air traffic controllers must be quickly informed of pre-eruptive volcanic activity, explosive eruptions and the location and direction of ash plumes anywhere they may occur around the globe. On average, 15 major explosive eruptions — those powerful enough to inject ash above 25,000 feet — occur each year. Ash plumes from a major eruption can affect aircraft thousands of miles downwind. When Mt. St. Helens erupted in 1980, the plume reached an altitude of 90,000 feet in 30 minutes and was 50 miles wide.

The Second International Conference’s plenary and breakout sessions will cover the major components of volcanic ash hazard mitigation, progress in technology and operations, the needs of the aviation community and future directions for coordinated efforts.

Agenda topics for the conference include:

  • Physical damage to aircraft from encounters with volcanic ash clouds and the socioeconomic consequences of the volcanic ash hazard
  • The volcanic source: operations and improvements in eruption monitoring and reporting; ash-cloud observations and forecasting
  • Improving ash-cloud detection and modeling capabilities
  • Aviation industry perspectives: transferring technology from research into operations to meet aviation needs
  • Education and outreach to pilots, air traffic controllers, dispatchers, the aviation industry, and the meteorological and communications support services to aviation

Keynote speakers include Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska); Dr. James Mahoney, assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA deputy administrator; James Schear, vice president for safety at FAA; Dr. Charles Groat, director of the U.S. Geological Service; and Captain Eric Moody, retired British Airways pilot.

The Office of the Federal Coordinator for Meteorological Services and Supporting Research is an interdepartmental office formed the OFCM in 1964 in response to Public Law 87-843 to coordinate the 15 federal departments and agencies currently engaged in meteorological activities. The OFCM carries out its tasks through an interagency staff working with representatives from the federal agencies who serve on program councils, committees, working groups and joint action groups. This infrastructure supports all of the federal agencies that are engaged in meteorological activities or have a need for meteorological services. In addition to providing this coordinating infrastructure, the OFCM prepares operations plans, conducts studies, and responds to special inquiries and investigations.