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Updated February 24, 2004

Background Information

An International Problem that Requires an International Solution

Volcanic ash is a worldwide aviation problem that demands an international solution. The volcanic “ring of fire” circling the Pacific basin ranges from South and Central America through the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, and around to Kamchatka, Japan, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Micronesia. This region is often cited as having the greatest volcanic ash risk because of the number of active volcanoes and their proximity to major aviation routes. Other regions of volcanic activity are in the Caribbean and Mediterranean basins and south Asia. Ash plumes carried downwind from a major eruption in any of these regions can endanger the aircraft of any nation flying in a plume’s path.

In September 1995, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) established the current worldwide system of Volcanic Ash Advisory Centers (VAACs) to track volcanic activity in their designated regions using satellite imagery. The ICAO also decided that there must be an interface between volcano observatories, meteorological agencies, and air traffic control centers. In the United States, “Volcanic Ash and Other Airborne Hazardous Materials” was designated in 1999 as one of the eight Service Areas for research and development (R&D) under the National Aviation Weather Program. Other nations also support R&D on ash plume detection, tracking, and forecasting.

Improving the International System for Volcanic Ash Risk Mitigation

The 1991 symposium on volcanic ash and aviation safety brought international stakeholders, as well as U.S. federal agencies and many R&D partners, together for the first time. Since then, the VAAC system has been established. Detection and monitoring of airborne ash using weather satellites in geosynchronous orbit now complements observations of eruptions from volcano observatories and reports of ash plumes from pilots. Atmospheric circulation models provide improved forecasts of plume movements. New technology for inflight detection of volcanic ash and gas is being tested. Most important, the aviation community—commercial carriers, pilots, air traffic controllers, flight service specialists, etc.—has gained operational experience with this still-evolving international system for mitigating the volcanic ash risk. The time is ripe to bring all these stakeholders together again, both to assess how the current system is operating and to focus attention on the critical areas for improvement.

The Second International Conference on Volcanic Ash and Aviation Safety is designed to meet these objectives. Its plenary and breakout sessions have been defined to cover the major components of volcanic ash hazard mitigation, progress in tools and operations, the needs of the aviation community, and future directions for coordinated efforts.