Memorandum submitted by the British Geophysical
Association (SAGE 14)
1. The British Geophysical Association (BGA)
is a Joint Association of the Geological Society of London and
the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS).
2. The aims of the BGA are to promote the
subject of geophysics, and particularly to strengthen the relationship
between geology and geophysics in the UK, by holding meetings
and courses, by encouraging the publication of the results of
research, and by such other means as are deemed appropriate to
an Association by the parent Societies.
3. Geophysics is the application of physics
to the study of the Earth and planetary systems, including planetary
interiors, atmospheres and interactions with the Sun. It thus
embraces two of the four topics being investigated by the Select
Committee: the volcanic ash crisis and solar storms. The following
submission refers to the Icelandic ash cloud: BGA input on solar
storms was incorporated into the Royal Astronomical Society's
submission. Some of the recommendations below are based on those
from a European Space Agency workshop in Frascati, Italy, on 26-27
May 2010, in which UK experts participated.
What are the potential hazards and risks and how
were they identified? How prepared was the Government for the
emergency? How does/did the Government use scientific advice and
evidence to identify, prepare for and react to an emergency? What
are the obstacles to obtaining reliable, timely scientific advice
and evidence to inform policy decisions in emergencies? Did the
Government have sufficient powers and resources to overcome the
obstacles? Was there sufficient and timely evidence to inform
4. The modelling of natural processes, in
this case ash eruption and dispersion shaped the assessment of
the emergency and decisions that were made. These needed to be
more firmly based on observations and wherever possible validated
against datasets of observations from past similar events.
5. Relevant observations include satellite
and ground measurements of the distribution and optical properties
of the ash; meteorological measurements, geophysical measurements
on the ground both proximal and distal, such as continuous monitoring
of earthquake occurrence and position, temperature, gravity and
geodetic (shape) measurements of both the volcano and its ice
cover, and quantifying emission rates of gas and ash from the
6. The prediction of ash dispersion, based
on the UK Meteorological Office modelling, required a number of
assumptions to be made in the absence of direct observation, such
as the volume and speed of mass ejection and using a priori
optical properties of the fine ash particles. However, given
the then present level of knowledge, it is unlikely that air space
could have been opened earlier without unacceptable risk.
7. The BGA notes that many of these essential
measurements require a long lead-in with diligent data collection
when there is no obvious threat. A good example is satellites
which may take around 20 years from conception to launch and operation.
Better risk awareness demands "baseline" geodetic and
seismological measurements that long precede major volcanic activity.
Continual calibration of models on a fine spatial scale, from
ground and airborne meteorological stations is required to improve
modelling of weather patterns and hence atmospheric dispersion
of ash. (We also note that effective emergency preparedness for
a major explosion involving radioactive material presents similar
requirements for atmospheric modelling and an additional requirement
for baseline measurements of environmental radioactivity).
8. More basic research on volcanic eruptions
of this type is vital, because the geological evidence is that
other volcanoes on Iceland and elsewhere erupt from beneath ice
caps. In particular, the fine grain size of ash was highly unusual
in modern observations but should be included in risk assessments
of future volcanic activity (see paragraphs 4 and 5). The BGA
urges the Government to provide the resources necessary for this
research to be pursued with vigour, so that the UK can have both
time-critical advice and the means to verify it.
9. One long-running issue is the major shortage
of qualified geophysicists. If this deficit is not addressed it
will hinder future research in this area. Geophysical skills required
for both measurement and modelling depend on a solid maths and
physics background at school level. The BGA report "Geophysics
Education in the UK" (Khan 2006, from http://www.ras.org.uk/images/stories/ras_pdfs/Geophysics%20Education
%20in%20the%20UK%20(12b).pdf) showed that school students were
hindered in proceeding to study geophysics at university by the
lack of both sound careers advice and the general shortage of
teachers with a qualification in physics.
10. Crises such as the Icelandic ash cloud
spark a short term interest in geophysics, but the maintenance
of UK capability for future events depends on the continuous support
of geophysical education and research careers. The BGA therefore
recommends that the Department for Education work closely with
the geophysics community to better promote careers in this area.
How effective is the strategic coordination between
Government departments, public bodies, private bodies, sources
of scientific advice and the research base in preparing for and
reacting to emergencies?
11. One critical issue is that the operational
community lags behind the scientific research community in its
use of modelling algorithms by as much as decades. The BGA recommends
that cooperation between these two groups is greatly improved
on an ongoing basis, rather than just being triggered by emergencies.
Both communities need to be sensitive to the changing needs of
the Government as the end user and be given the resources to adapt
to provide advice in a useable form, in particular probabilities
or yes/no thresholds for closing airspace as required.
How important is international co-ordination and
how could it be strengthened?
12. The Icelandic ash cloud affected a large
part of Europe and eventually North America, making international
co-ordination an essential part of the response.
13. A large body of evidence and data relevant
to eruptions already exists. The BGA recommends that its value
is maintained by being kept up to date and readily available to
the international scientific community. Observations need to be
assembled from where they are dispersed across European countries
and institutions in different formats and accessibility. Resources
for making these data available need to be pinpointed and the
effort required to make them readily available rewarded.
14. The American Geophysical Union (AGU,
Eos Transactions 91/34, August 2010) has recently commented on
the need for better citation practices and peer review of data
(rather than scientific papers based on the data) to encourage
greater recognition and more critical use of data. We commend
to the Committee the AGU's "position statement" on geophysical
data (see http://www.agu.org/sci_pol/positions/geodata.shtml)
that applies directly to the Icelandic ash crisis.
British Geophysical Association (BGA)
13 September 2010