Characterisation of the Near-Field Eyjafjallajökull Volcanic Plume and its Long-range Influence

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: Earth Sciences


The volcanic plume from the Eyjafjallajökull eruption has caused significant disruption to air transport across Europe. The regulatory response, ensuring aviation safety, depends on dispersion models. The accuracy of the dispersion predictions depend on the intensity of the eruption, on the model representation of the plume dynamics and the physical properties of the ash and gases in the plume. Better characterisation of these processes and properties will require improved understanding of the near-source plume region. This project will bring to bear observations and modelling in order to achieve more accurate and validated dispersion predictions. The investigation will seek to integrate the volcanological and atmospheric science methods in order to initiate a complete system model of the near-field atmospheric processes. This study will integrate new modelling and insights into the dynamics of the volcanic plume and its gravitational equilibration in the stratified atmosphere, effects of meteorological conditions, physical and chemical behaviour of ash particles and gases, physical and chemical in situ measurements, ground-based remote sensing and satellite remote sensing of the plume with very high resolution numerical computational modelling. When integrated with characterisations of the emissions themselves, the research will lead to enhanced predictive capability. The Eyjafjallajökull eruption has now paused. However, all three previous historical eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull were followed by eruptions of the much larger Katla volcano. At least two other volcanic systems in Iceland are 'primed' ready to erupt. This project will ensure that the science and organisational lessons learned from the April/May 2010 response to Eyjafjallajökull are translated fully into preparedness for a further eruption of any other volcano over the coming years. Overall, the project will (a) complete the analysis of atmospheric data from the April/May eruption, (b) prepare for future observations and forecasting and (c) make additional observations if there is another eruption during within the forthcoming few years.


10 25 50
Description Key outcomes for this project are as follows - (1) Development of the PlumeRise model (see software section for details), (2) data insertion schemes tested, (3) Development of a Bayesian classifier scheme and (4) initial development of drone systems for ash sampling.
Exploitation Route PlumeRise is free to use online (and has been used frequently by researchers and operational staff. Both the Bayesian scheme and piece of software that allows testing of detection schemes against empirical observations (either by eye or by using simple band ratios) is freely available on VHub.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice,Transport

Description The ash cloud from the eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010 caused the cancellation of over 100,000 flights and cost an estimated £3 billion. The much larger eruption of Grimsvötn (also in Iceland) the following year caused only 900 flights to be cancelled and its economic cost was around one per cent of that associated with the Eyjafjallajökull eruption. A key factor in this huge reduction was the improved understanding of ash clouds provided by researchers at the University of Bristol, through the VANAHEIM project (NE/I01554X/1). Drawing on research conducted over several decades, and specifically during the grant period, the Bristol team were able to inform and advise airlines and major decision-makers such as the Civil Aviation Authority, the UK Government and the European Space Agency during the 2011 and 2014 crises. We continue to provide support for decision makers, underpinned by NERC-funded research, during and after the eruption of Bárðarbunga. We continue to advise government and the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centres (VAACs) on ash dispersion and our model PlumeRise has been added to the Met Office processing stream.
First Year Of Impact 2011
Sector Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Government, Democracy and Justice,Transport
Impact Types Societal,Economic

Description NERC Strategy Document
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Citation in other policy documents
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a guidance/advisory committee
Impact Our research instigated a change in the national risk register to include risks to the UK posed by volcanic ash clouds (lead by Prof. Steve Sparks).
Description Mini wind tunnel testing for the ash sensor challenge
Amount £15,000 (GBP)
Organisation Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (DSTL) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2022 
End 12/2022
Description Models of global volcanism and their hazards for aviation: stochastic modelling
Amount £105,000 (GBP)
Funding ID R8/H12/83/038 
Organisation Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2013 
End 04/2018
Description NSTP3
Amount £64,455 (GBP)
Organisation UK Space Agency 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2017 
End 11/2017
Title Ash Classifier 
Description Dr. Shona Mackie developed a tool (online at Vhub) that allows researchers and policy makers to load and interrogate satellite data for the presence of volcanic ash clouds using a number of simple algorithms. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2014 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Too early to know. 
Title PlumeRise 
Description PlumeRise is a model that allows the derivation of mass eruption rate (a key source term in volcanic ash dispersion models) from eruption height (measurable) that accounts for the fluid dynamics of weak injection into a wind field. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2013 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact PlumeRise is used by Volcanic Ash Advisory Centres (VAACs) worldwide and the source code is being evaluated by the London VAAC for inclusion in their operational codes. It was used during the crisis at Bardarbunga to preempt ash clouds from hypothetical eruptions in real-time. 
Description COBR 
Organisation Government of the UK
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution For airborne volcanic ash, the risks extend beyond risk-to-life to substantial economic costs which were felt strongly within the UK and Europe but also further afield. During the Iceland volcanic ash crisis of 2010, Sparks, Aspinall and Watson were invited to join the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) set up by Professor Sir John Beddington (then Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government) to report directly to the Prime Minister and Cabinet Office Briefing Room (COBR) meetings. Minutes from the SAGE discussions (see URL) demonstrate the key influence Bristol researchers had on the mitigation of risk during the crisis. Most notable was the consideration of the potential of an associated eruption of Katla (a discussion lead by Aspinall and Sparks) and inclusion of volcanic eruption scenarios in the National Risk Register. The research experience of the Bristol academics was used extensively to drive discussion within SAGE on source terms for models, particularly application of the 'Sparks curve' which relates column height (observable) to mass eruption rate (critical model source term). This curve enables rapid mass estimation that is vital during eruption phases where observations are sparse and "forms the basis of the quantitative concentration predictions provided by the London VAAC for the ICAP European and North Atlantic Volcanic Ash Contingency Plan" (quote from the CAA).
Collaborator Contribution The Bristol Team formed part of both the syn- and post-crisis collaborations across government that formed the response to, and future mitigation of aircraft hazard from volcanic ash. As such the groups act as a receptacle for information from various sources, including Bristol, and was contributed to by other members including from DfT, CAA, GO-Science and other research institutes.
Impact The major tangible output from this work is the inclusion of volcanic risk in the national risk register - work lead by Prof. Steve Sparks. Evidence here is from the HM Government National Risk Register itself (both 2008 (no ash), 2013 (including ash). Available from:
Start Year 2010
Description IMO PlumeRise application 
Organisation Icelandic Met Office
Country Iceland 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Implementation and real-time use of the PlumeRise model.
Collaborator Contribution IMO used the model results during the Bardabungar crisis (early phase) to do dispersion prediction (see URL)
Impact We have received a letter of support from IMO (as part of a submission to the NERC Impact Awards) that states the following... 'Notably the Bristol team have also produced PlumeRise, an on-line implementation of their model. This provides immediate (and free!) access to state of the art scientific models and allows different scenarios of volcanic eruptions to be investigated in an operational context; it has been used at the IMO. Currently there is an ongoing eruption at Bardarbunga volcano and we are working with the Bristol researchers to produce every 12 hours predictions of the height of the volcanic plume rise as a function of source strength using measured atmospheric wind and temperature fields. Should this eruption transform into an explosive, buoyant ash cloud then these computations will inform our operational assessment of the hazards posed to aircraft flights.'
Start Year 2013
Description Met Office 
Organisation Meteorological Office UK
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Development of the mathematics that govern the rise of volcanic ash columns and the implementation of the PlumeRise online tool
Collaborator Contribution Testing and application of the code.
Impact It is still too early to say (the Met Office are testing the code).
Start Year 2010
Description NATO Advanced Vehicle Transport group 
Organisation North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
Country Belgium 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution I now lead on two NATO panels - AVT250 and AVT272. Both are concerned with environmental particulates-foreign object damage to aircraft. This will culminate in the drafting of a report that will be used by NATO air personnel when assessing risk from volcanic ash and other aerosols.
Collaborator Contribution I am part of a panel of about 15 individuals who are co-writing the report. I am lead author for one of the three sections that will make up the report and a potential contributing author on others.
Impact None yet, two reports later in 2017 (in at least draft form)
Start Year 2016
Title PlumeRise 
Description PlumeRise is a tool for modelling the rise of volcanic plumes in a moist and windy atmosphere. The mathematical model is based on the fluid dynamics of turbulent buoyant plumes and includes a description of the thermodynamics of the heat transfer between hot pyroclasts and the surrounding magmatic and atmospheric gases. Full details of the mathematical model used in PlumeRise can be found in Woodhouse, Hogg, Phillips & Sparks (2013). The state of the atmosphere can have a strong effect on the rise of plumes. The plume rises due to buoyancy (except for a region near the vent where the erupted material can be more dense than the atmosphere) and therefore the atmospheric density gradient has a strong control on the ascent of the plume. In addition, the plume can lift water vapour (either entrained into the plume from the moist lower atmosphere, or from magmatic volatiles) high into the atmosphere where condensation can occur. The release of latent heat to the plume can enhance the plume rise. PlumeRise allows atmospheric controls on volcanic plume rise to be assessed and includes a description of the thermodynamics of phase changes of water. The model also accounts for the effect of cross winds on the rise of the plumes. Atmospheric winds enhance the mixing of atmospheric gases with the plume, and the plume density therefore adjusts to the ambient density more rapidly than would occur for a similar plume in a still atmosphere. Furthermore, the entrained atmospheric air carries horizontal momentum and the plume therefore acquires this momentum and is bent over by the cross wind. PlumeRise models the effect of a cross wind on the plume ascent using the entrainment formulation of Hewett, Fay & Hoult (1971). 
Type Of Technology Webtool/Application 
Year Produced 2015 
Open Source License? Yes  
Impact PlumeRise has been used around the world by Volcanic Ash Advisory Centres (VAACs) as an interim step before running advection-diffusion models. 
Description media interest during the Grimsvotn eruption 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Appearances on the media stage including Sky News, CNN International, BBC World Television News and BBC Breakfast Television informed the public about the state of the eruption and the key differences in outcome relative to the Eyjafjallajokull event of 2010.

A number of people who saw the programme that contacted me afterwards said they felt more informed and less concerned.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011