Atmospheric Measurement Techniques (Sep 2011)

Early in-flight detection of SO<sub>2</sub> via Differential Optical Absorption Spectroscopy: a feasible aviation safety measure to prevent potential encounters with volcanic plumes

  • U. Platt,
  • J. M. Alvarez Nieves,
  • L. Cárdenas Gonzáles,
  • P. Lübcke,
  • O. Landgren,
  • P. Norman,
  • S. Arellano,
  • V. Conde,
  • H. Delgado Granados,
  • C. Kern,
  • L. Vogel,
  • B. Galle

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 4, no. 9
pp. 1785 – 1804


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Volcanic ash constitutes a risk to aviation, mainly due to its ability to cause jet engines to fail. Other risks include the possibility of abrasion of windshields and potentially serious damage to avionic systems. These hazards have been widely recognized since the early 1980s, when volcanic ash provoked several incidents of engine failure in commercial aircraft. In addition to volcanic ash, volcanic gases also pose a threat. Prolonged and/or cumulative exposure to sulphur dioxide (SO2) or sulphuric acid (H2SO4) aerosols potentially affects e.g. windows, air frame and may cause permanent damage to engines. SO2 receives most attention among the gas species commonly found in volcanic plumes because its presence above the lower troposphere is a clear proxy for a volcanic cloud and indicates that fine ash could also be present. Up to now, remote sensing of SO2 via Differential Optical Absorption Spectroscopy (DOAS) in the ultraviolet spectral region has been used to measure volcanic clouds from ground based, airborne and satellite platforms. Attention has been given to volcanic emission strength, chemistry inside volcanic clouds and measurement procedures were adapted accordingly. Here we present a set of experimental and model results, highlighting the feasibility of DOAS to be used as an airborne early detection system of SO2 in two spatial dimensions. In order to prove our new concept, simultaneous airborne and ground-based measurements of the plume of Popocatépetl volcano, Mexico, were conducted in April 2010. The plume extended at an altitude around 5250 m above sea level and was approached and traversed at the same altitude with several forward looking DOAS systems aboard an airplane. These DOAS systems measured SO2 in the flight direction and at ±40 mrad (2.3°) angles relative to it in both, horizontal and vertical directions. The approaches started at up to 25 km distance to the plume and SO2 was measured at all times well above the detection limit. In combination with radiative transfer studies, this study indicates that an extended volcanic cloud with a concentration of 1012 molecules cm−3 at typical flight levels of 10 km can be detected unambiguously at distances of up to 80 km away. This range provides enough time (approx. 5 min) for pilots to take action to avoid entering a volcanic cloud in the flight path, suggesting that this technique can be used as an effective aid to prevent dangerous aircraft encounters with potentially ash rich volcanic clouds.