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Icelandic eruption causes Alpine air pollution

By Email author - Wed, 31 Aug 2011 08:45:00 GMT
Icelandic eruption causes Alpine air pollution

The Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland came to global notice in April 2010 when its eruption and the resulting plume wreaked havoc on European air transportation.

The plume was responsible for closing much of the airspace over the continent for safety reasons because ash from a volcanic eruption was known to be responsible for stalling all four engines on a British Airways jet that had flown through an ash plume in Asia, fortunately, the pilots were able to restart the engines and the plane landed safely.

Researchers in Germany and Austria published a study on the consequences of the Eyjafjallajokull eruption on air quality (Atmos. Chem. Phys., 11, 8555-8575, 2011). The eruption took place on 14th April 2010 and continued until the end of the following month. The research team reported that evidence that the plume had reached southern Germany was produced by ground based sensing systems and from satellite observations within two days of the onset of the eruption.

On 17th April, the plume was detected by mountain based monitoring stations (Zugspitze/Schneefernerhaus and Schauinsland) and hikers in the Arlberg region of Austria (Alt 2500 m) reported the smell of sulphur.

The researchers have attempted to document the vertical and horizontal distribution of ash particle in the northern alpine region through physical and chemical of particles and gases at monitoring sites and via remote sensing.

They report that PM10 (particulate matter with a particle size below 10 microns) and SO2 concentrations in alpine regions of Germany and Austria were elevated on 17th April 2010, but only a moderate increase was noted at low altitudes in southern German monitoring sites.

All monitoring sites recorded their highest values for these parameters on 19th/20th April. Using titanium as an index of origin, they were able to show admixture of the volcanic plume with ambient air by this time. The PM10 data exceeded EU air quality directives on a number of occasions on these dates in the monitoring area. They believe that local weather conditions prevented the PM10 levels to spike earlier.

The particles associated with the plume fell predominantly into two groups: ultrafine particles (less than 100 nm) and primary particles (with sizes above one micron). The researchers attribute the relatively high number of ultrafine particles to photochemical processes taking place in the S02-rich plume. This distinction allows particles from the Icelandic event to be discriminated from dust particles originating from aeloian transport from the Sahara desert.

The researchers attributed enhanced levels of sulphate observed at monitoring station to the fact that the SO2 produced in the eruption was being converted to sulphate during atmospheric transport. They point out that the high acidity of the plume particles (due to condensation of sulphuric acid on the particle surface) represents an additional risk to the PM10 level for human health. Inhalation of PM10 substances can lead to respiratory and cardiovascular problems. Fortunately, the researchers conclude that any effect on people in the region is likely to be minor.

Top Image Credit: © klikk

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