Why Volcanic Ash Clouds Are a Hazard to Aviation

April 19, 2010; 4:20 PM ET
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A traveler walks past docked planes in Roissy Charles de Gaulle Airport, near Paris, Thursday April 15, 2010. The main Paris airport and nearly two dozens airports around the country are being shut down Thursday due to ash from Iceland's spewing volcano. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

In light of the recent ash cloud from an erupting Icelandic volcano disrupting all western European flights, how are ash plumes able to affect aviation?

Visibility of the pilot is a significant concern, becoming drastically reduced by the thick, black smoke and smoldering debris from an erupting volcano.

It's easy to think that visibility should only be hampered when flying directly over the volcanic explosion, but this isn't the case.

Ash clouds have the power to impact a massive land area, which is the reason all non-emergency flights in Britain, Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, France and Belgium have been grounded since Thursday.

AccuWeather.com meteorologists said an area equivalent of up to 350,000 square miles, or about the two-thirds the size of the state of Alaska, could continue to be affected by the ash cloud from the Eyjafjall volcano. Meteorologists predict the width of the plume is between 50 and 100 miles.

The threat could last through this week as the plume could end up shifting farther south Tuesday into Wednesday, potentially becoming more concentrated over the U.K. and possibly even reaching Germany.

Besides visibility concerns, volcanic ash plumes have the power to cause major airline jet engines to completely fail.

The ash particles floating in the clouds can be sucked up by the moving parts of the engine, completely blocking essential engine functions, like the intake of fuel.

Electronic, ventilation and air data mechanisms are also prone to malfunction with volcanic matter moving through their systems.

The engine will then be more susceptible to stalling, and even stopping.

Volcanic ash particles can also damage aircraft windshields and outside surfaces with visibility-inhibiting abrasions.

Volcanic ash consists of bits of pulverized rock and glass, and very fine particles can remain in the highest parts of the Earth's atmosphere for many years after a volcanic eruption.

High-altitude winds can carry the ash particles around the world, thousands of miles away from the initial eruption point.

Boeing reported that more than 90 jet-powered commercial airplanes have encountered clouds of volcanic ash and suffered damage as a result.

Ash Plume to Shift Farther South through Europe

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