Stephen Solovitz: In the wake of a volcanic eruption

“When there is an eruption, there’s no time for detailed computer simulation. You need to know within hours if the ash will cause problems for aviation.”


The eruption of an Icelandic volcano in 2010 disrupted air traffic for weeks, resulting in tremendous economic losses. The rules of aviation at the time forbade flying through an ash cloud because of potential danger to the plane’s engine. Because it was impossible to predict accurately how much ash the volcano would release and where the ash would go, decision-makers erred on the side of caution.

So air travelers stayed safe—but they also got frustrated when they saw nothing but clear blue skies.

An international task force came together to seek a better model to predict the distribution of volcanic ash. Stephen Solovitz, associate professor of mechanical engineering at WSU Vancouver, along with colleagues from the U.S. Geological Survey, Portland State University and the Oregon Museum of Science & Industry, received a National Science Foundation grant to conduct the experiments and design a new model that would be more accurate—and faster.

“When there is an eruption, there’s no time for detailed computer simulation,” Solovitz said. “You need to know within hours if the ash will cause problems for aviation.”

Simulating the flow of volcanic ash

The goal of the model Solovitz and colleagues are designing is to enable observers to more accurately quantify the path and density of ash distribution, taking potential wind currents and cross-currents into consideration to an extent that could not be done in the past. The model will factor in meteorological data, the diameter of the plume caused by the eruption, visual cues and the results of extensive wind-tunnel experiments. The information will be valuable not only to aviation but to anyone concerned about volcanic ash dispersal—including those downstream from an eruption and first responders.

Although the model will apply to any volcanic eruption in the world, Mount St. Helens makes a convenient field of study, Solovitz said. In the Pacific Northwest, the 1980 eruption provides a backdrop for public interest in the research.

Bringing the story to the public

One aspect of the grant is educational outreach to spread understanding of how volcanoes function. With an OMSI Science Communication Fellowship, Solovitz visits OMSI to demonstrate how volcanic ash is dispersed in an eruption, using a bag of flour, a squirt bottle, a hanSolovitz-OMSI-by Amanda Fisherdheld fan and a map of the region around the mountain. People can fill the squirt bottle with flour, squeeze it, hold the fan in different ways and see where the flour goes.

“It is a demonstration of how simple science can be,” Solovitz said. “We can show with very simple tools what we do in the lab. Visitors ask questions you wouldn’t think of, and often they are valid and insightful.”

The grant’s first year has involved preliminary work and building a wind tunnel experiment at PSU. Solovitz expects experiments and analysis to continue for the next year. The third year will involve working with USGS to improve the models.

Solovitz’s research is wide-ranging. In addition to the study of volcanic eruptions, he is working with one student on a flow-control device based on jellyfish motion, potentially for use for propulsion or cooling systems, and with another on an electric cooling design based on the human circulatory system. He is also collaborating on improved wind turbine blades.

PHOTO CREDITS: Top photo by U.S. Geological Survey. Bottom photo courtesy of OMSI.

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