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May 22, 2018

Ash cloud troubles reignite the argument for better weather forecasting

The volcanic troubles in Hawaii refuse to abate. It has been two weeks since eruptions began at Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano, with the latest gigantic eruption last Thursday sending a further slew of ash 30,000ft (9,100m) into the sky, news that will cause consternation for a global airline industry that has been here before. You may remember Iceland 2010, when almost 20 countries closed their airspace to commercial aircraft traffic, affecting circa 10 million travellers over ash concerns. Volcanic ash plays havoc with airplane engines and must be avoided like the plague. Hawaii’s biggest island is effectively becoming a no-fly zone, because airlines don’t have enough reliable wind, weather, and ash data to safely operate in that airspace.

The key problem with ash is that, once unleashed into the environment, it tends to move around. When there’s too high a concentration of volcanic particulate in the atmosphere, planes are grounded – this is what led to the weeks of travel chaos after Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano turned much of Europe’s air into volcanic pea soup. The International Air Transport Association later reported that the total loss for the global airline industry was approximately 1.7bn USD.

Given its location, it’s hard to imagine Hawaii’s current troubles leading to the same level of disruption and financial loss as those endured in Europe eight years ago. It’s a more remote location that plays host to fewer overall flight paths. Yet this ‘red alert’ situation has again brought into sharp focus the need for more accurate weather monitoring and forecasting systems, to help airlines better predict the movement of ash particles and understand precisely where and when it’ll be safe to fly again.

Today, airlines have electronic flight bags that include updated weather information based on the latest tablet technology, but they’re being let down by our collective inability to provide sufficient insight into what will happen. Weather data has for decades been the exclusive domain of Government-operated satellite programmes. Unfortunately, we’re now starting to see some of them scaled back as older satellites reach the end of their lifecycle. At a time when industries such as aviation crave more and more weather data, they’re being exposed to less.

The private sector can pick up the shortfall and deliver more and better weather data from space. With advancements in data and advancements in forecasting, we may soon be able to better track the movement of ash clouds and predict the overall spread of ash particles with increased granularity. This technology is not a pipe dream; companies like ours and others have already greatly reduced the cost of building satellite constellations in space and have turned them towards collecting global, frequent, and accurate weather data. Now it’s a matter of implementation. 

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