Airborne volcanic ash causes significant damage and increased costs to the aviation industry annually. Since it has a demonstrated potential to cause major safety incidents, sometimes even at great distances from the eruption responsible for the ash, aircraft should avoid volcanic ash encounters to the maximum extent possible. To reduce the risk, an international warning network has been progressively implemented, primarily over the last decade.
The International Airways Volcano Watch (IAVW) is a complex system that requires co-operation between worldwide meteorological, aviation, and volcanological agencies, and exists under ICAO and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Procedures and standards of service have evolved rapidly, to the point where a fledgeling warning system is in place. The standards and procedures of the IAVW are set by ICAO and are negotiated between all IAVW participants, using informal and formal regional and international forums, and ultimately through the guidance of the IAVW Operations Group, which reports to the Air Navigation Commission.
Much of the world’s volcanic activity is concentrated around the so-called ‘Ring of Fire’, which extends approximately around the perimeter of the Pacific Ocean. The western ‘Ring of Fire’, which includes Kamchatka (Russia), Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea, has had many of the world’s major historical eruptions, and the majority of documented aircraft encounters with volcanic ash.
Indonesia has more than 127 active volcanoes with 5 million people active within the danger zones. Located in The Eurasian Plate, Pacific Plate and Indo-Australian Plate are three active tectonic plates that cause the subduction zones all volcanoes are monitored by volcano observatories operated by the Centre for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation (CVGHM), Geological Agency, Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources.
There is no global standardized alert or measurement system for categorizing ongoing volcanic activity. While both hurricanes and cyclones have scales or categories that provide an international understanding of developing storm strength, and there is a unified network creating a global early warning system for tsunamis, there is no equivalent for volcano status.
Volcanic eruptions are so unique that it’s almost impossible to create a wide-ranging system to warn of current hazards and possible outcomes. The lack of international cohesion is due to the great variation both in the behavior of volcanoes themselves and the monitoring capabilities of their home nations, says the World Organization of Volcano Observatories. This leaves the world with a jumbled mess of scales and levels, which can be grouped into three types.
Color-coordinated alert systems
Pilots actually have a standardized way of assessing volcanic activity, though it’s not particularly useful for those on the ground. ICAO color-coded method places an emphasis on one of the greatest volcanic hazards to aircraft, ash. Ash can cause jet engines to fail, and winds can carry it far from its point of origin.
Aviation alerts are divided into four colors: green, yellow, orange, and red. Red indicates an eruption in progress, or imminent, and indicates to pilots there is likely to be significant ash in the area. Many countries have included some form of the colors in their own alert systems, including the US.
In 2006, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) standardized the alert notification systems across its volcanic observatories. It is composed of icons meant to correspond to the aviation colors; however, because hazards in the air and on the ground are different, at times the levels will change independent of one another. This system consists of four levels—normal, advisory, watch, and warning— that range from dormant to eruption.
The majority of countries have some form of numeric system. But even if numbers correspond across scales, the severity of what they indicate will differ significantly. Indonesia is an example of a country using a numeric system; its categories range from one to four. New Zealand also uses numbers, though its scale goes to five and includes zero.
Indonesia’s I-WISH System
On 24 June 1982 British Airways Flight 09, Boeing 747, from London Heathrow flew into a cloud of volcanic ash thrown up by the eruption of Mount Galunggung South-east of Jakarta, Indonesia. This resulted in the failure of all four engines.
Because the ash cloud was dry, it did not appear on the weather radar, which was designed to detect the moisture in clouds. The crew considered to ditch into the Indian Ocean. Many passengers, fearing for their lives, wrote final notes to relatives.
The aircraft diverted and landed safely in Jakarta although the crew found it difficult to see anything through the windscreen which was sandblasted by the ash, and the approach was made almost entirely on instruments, despite reports of good visibility.
Even today it remains challenging to inform aircraft in flight of the exact location of potentially dangerous ash clouds on their flight path, particularly shortly after the eruption has occurred. The difficulties include reliably forecasting and detecting the onset of significant explosive eruptions on a global basis. The difficulties include observing the dispersal of eruption clouds in real-time, capturing their complex structure and constituents in atmospheric transport models and modelling results in a manner suitable for aviation users., There is a need for scientific development to undertake operational enhancements.
Since that time, Indonesia has developed an integrated Web-based Aeronautical Information System Handling (I-WISH), that was launched in September 2018. It is an early awareness system regarding the operations of aircraft that are known or suspected of being contaminated with volcanic ash or at aerodromes with runway volcanic ash contamination. I-WISH ensures harmonization among authorities in order to provide a structure for decision-making on handling volcanic ash impacts to aviation safety.
I-WISH, as a system, supports the implementation of collaborative decision-making (CDM) by involving the regulator, air navigation services provider, meteorological agency, volcano logic agency, airport operator, airline operator, ground handling and other stakeholders in order to build an operational concept for flight into ash contaminated airspace and for the closure of airspace.
This system displays all information required in CDM, such as:
- the latest volcanic ash information including the estimated spread of volcanic ash in the airspace based on SIGMET and ASHTAM;
- affected airports in the area of volcanic ash distribution; and
- domestic and international routes.
The I-WISH system concept focuses on integration by creating an application program interface (API) for the I-WISH system that is connected to other systems (data sources).
Indonesia’s official communication media platform for handling of volcanic ash, (exercises and real events), guarantees secured communication and is easy to use. The system is capable of documenting activities. I-WISH also enables continuous mobile smartphone monitoring using I-CHAT to monitor volcanic ash and facilitate CDM information.
The stakeholders involved are the Directorate General Civil Aviation, Airport Authority, Meteorological (MET) Authority, Air Navigation Service Provider and Airlines. Indonesia has developed this system as an official platform for volcanic ash exercises namely Integrated Web-based Information System Handling (IWISH). This model can be adopted as a collaborative decision-making system to mitigate the volcanic ash effect on civil aviation.
Communities balance the risks from the volcanoes with the benefits from living in such a fertile area. Millions of Indonesians who live near the country’s more than 120 active volcanoes are constantly having to consider and decide whether to evacuate or not. Supporting “volcano cultures” with up-to-date evidence is one way to save more lives.
To manage and mitigate volcanic eruptions to ensure the flight operations and safety, Indonesia has developed a collaborative decision-making mechanism and information model (I-WISH) which can be adopted by all States for volcanic ash handling.
About the author
Dr. Afen Sena is a Transportation Attache and the Alternate Representative Indonesia to ICAO. He has served at operational and management levels in air traffic control, pilot services and training in Indonesia and has a Doctorate of Education (EdD) focused in Education Management from the State University of Jakarta.