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Page last updated at 10:29 GMT, Wednesday, 19 May 2010 11:29 UK

Weird science versus the volcano

Graphic of volcano being plugged

By Jon Kelly
BBC News Magazine

Technology may appear impotent in the face of the volcanic ash cloud disrupting global air travel. So the Magazine has asked scientists for their most outlandish solutions. And we want yours too.

At the bottom of online articles about Eyjafjallajokull, the hard-on-the-tongue Icelandic volcano that has created airline havoc around the world, the same comment left by many a disgruntled layman has become familiar.

"Why can't they just put a lid on it?"

They can't, explains Prof Gillian Foulger of Durham University's earth science department, because to do so would be to create a build-up of magma "with the explosive capability of an atomic bomb".

But if the massed ranks of armchair pundits have been unable to offer a solution to the multi-million pound chaos, neither have the climatologists, volcanologists and aircraft technicians.

In a spirit of inquiry, we've asked the experts to come up with suggestions for solving the crisis that are, at the very least, within the realms of scientific possibility, while not necessarily those of practicality, affordability or remote likelihood.

They've come back with suggestions that are unlikely to be presented in learned journals any time soon - but go some way to outlining the balance of power between mankind and volcano.


Rooted in Icelandic custom, though unlikely to be put into practice, is the science fiction brainchild of Dr Grant Allen from Manchester University's Centre for Atmospheric Science.

Eyjafjallajokull volcano
Blowing a hole in Eyjafjallajokull could help beat the ash cloud. In theory

He notes that, during previous eruptions, explosives have been used to create channels through which magma can flow harmlessly into the sea.

"The Icelanders are very adept at doing this sort of thing," he says.

Of course, this volcano is different. Getting at the magma and diverting it away from contact with the glacier which currently sits over the eruption site would involve blowing a hole in the side of the mountain itself.

"It would take something like a nuclear weapon to do it," Dr Allen adds. "I don't think you would really have control of the situation."


Cloud seeding, in which particles are dropped or fired into clouds in an effort to change precipitation levels, is already a reality, much beloved by dictators who seek to control the weather on national holidays in their name.

Rain stops... volcano?

But employed on an as-yet unprecedented scale, it is - just - possible to imagine water vapour clouds being used to tackle volcanic ash, says Prof Foulger.

"You fill the atmosphere with dust which causes rain," she says. "You would just wash the ash out of the atmosphere."

But, she acknowledges, the technology to do so on such as scale would be way beyond mankind's capability at the moment.

"You'd also have to do a cost analysis to see whether it would be really worth the expense," she adds.


On a similar - if barely more practical - theme, Prof David Pyle, earth scientist at Oxford University, suggests another way to sweep away the ash cloud.

Electric lightbulb
It doesn't take a bright spark to see why this might not be entirely practical

The key to his method is determining the electrical charge of the ash particles.

"If you knew whether they were negatively charged or positively charged, you could flush it with something that had an opposite polarity - bits of plastic or lumps of rock.

"What you'd hope is that, as these large particles came through the cloud, they would attract the fine ash particles, clump together and sweep them to the ground."

The drawback, he says, is that you would need to have aircraft continually feeding the ash cloud with the larger particles - no mean undertaking during an eruption expected to last months.


One of the biggest problems with the Eyjafjallajokull eruption is that it is taking place beneath a glacier 650ft (200m) thick, says Dr David Rothery, a volcanologist with the Open University.

Eyjafjallajokull volcano
The volcano has a glacier inconveniently sitting atop it

The ice melts into the volcano magma plumbing system, and then turns into steam - expanding as it does so, which, Dr Rothery says, makes the volcano even more explosive.

"What you could do, in theory, is have some kind of drainage of the melted water under the ice."

This could be done by boring through the ice, to take the steam away from magma. But the practical obstacles mean it is hardly likely to be carried out any time soon.

"It would be very difficult," Dr Rothery says. "You'd have to work out how long this would actually take and I wouldn't like to think about how much it would cost."


The impracticality of these suggestions may imply that modern science is impotent in the face of nature.

But British climate expert Fred Prata, who is based at the Norwegian Institute for Air Research, is hoping to put into practice one idea which could, at the very least, ameliorate the effects of the eruption - for the flying public, at least.

Departure board
At least one suggestion offers hope to frustrated travellers

He has patented an infrared camera for detecting volcanic ash which can be mounted on aircraft.

The device looks for volcanic silicates - the tiny pieces of volcanic glass and rocks so deadly for jet engines - which absorb infrared radiation, thus allowing air traffic controllers to reroute.

"This isn't science fiction," Dr Prata says. "If they were fitted with these cameras, the aircraft would be able to safely fly much closer to the ash clouds."

Dr Prata is now in talks with airline manufacturers. Perhaps, after all, it is this kind of ingenuity which is the most outlandish of all.

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