International Coordination in Managing Airborne Ash Hazards: Lessons from the Northern Pacific
Airborne volcanic ash is one of the most common, far-travelled, direct hazards associated with explosive volcanic eruptions worldwide. Management of volcanic ash cloud hazards often requires coordinated efforts of meteorological, volcanological, and aviation authorities from multiple countries. These international collaborations during eruptions pose particular challenges due to variable crisis response protocols, uneven agency responsibilities and technical capacities, language differences, and the expense of travel to establish and maintain relationships over the long term. This report introduces some of the recent efforts in enhancing international cooperation and collaboration in the Northern Pacific region.
Airborne volcanic ash is one of the most common, far-travelled, direct hazards associated with explosive volcanic eruptions worldwide. Management of volcanic ash cloud hazards often require coordinated efforts of meteorological, volcanological, and civil aviation authorities from multiple countries. These international collaborations during eruptions pose particular challenges due to variable crisis response protocols, uneven agency responsibilities and technical capacities, language differences, and the expense of travel to establish and maintain relationships over the long term. The steady rise in global aviation, particularly on the remote routes between North America and Asia that overfly more than 100 potentially active volcanoes in the United States (Alaska and Aleutian Islands) and the Russian Federation (Kamchatka and Kurile Islands), means that more and more aircraft are at risk from the impacts of airborne volcanic ash.
Frequent exercises that test the readiness and procedures, involving representatives of international air carriers, are important tools to continually refine the response process. A mechanism to engage air carriers and critically evaluate individual eruption responses to events is also necessary to focus these improvements. Each of the three main components of ash cloud response: meteorology, volcanology, and air traffic management, have different challenges in obtaining a seamless coordinated response. The establishment of a worldwide system of Volcanic Ash Advisory Centres (VAACs) in the mid-1990s assisted greatly in development of a consistent meteorological response and warning product suite. Similarly, the mature system of international conventions in air traffic management contributes significantly to coordinated handling of air traffic during eruptions that may disrupt the air routes. However, there remains strong variability in the adequacy of volcano surveillance and alerting by appropriate regional volcanological authorities, a challenge increasingly met by the growing use of remote and satellite based monitoring and eruption detection techniques. Recent eruptions of Sarychev-Peak Volcano in 2009 (McGimsey et al. 2014) and Kliuchevskoi Volcano in 2013 (Girina et al. 2014a, b) illustrate aspects of both the successes and ongoing challenges of international eruption response in the Northern Pacific, as well as worldwide.
2 VAACs and Volcano Observatories Related to Volcanic Ash Clouds in the Northern Pacific Region
VAAC Anchorage was established by the United States Department of Commerce (DOC) National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Weather Service (NWS) at the request of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). It has been providing information on volcanic ash clouds in the form of Volcanic Ash Advisories (VAAs) around the clock, supporting the Anchorage Meteorological Watch Offices (MWO) and the Anchorage Area Control Center (ACC).
VAAC Tokyo has been monitoring volcanoes around the clock and issuing VAAs since 1997. It is a part of the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA). VAAC Tokyo was originally established in the Tokyo Aviation Weather Service Center, the branch office of JMA located at Haneda Airport, and was transferred to JMA headquarters in Tokyo in 2006. Through the experience of several significant eruptions such as that of Sarychev Peak in 2009, VAAC Tokyo strengthened the operations by allocating five forecasters specific for volcanic ash in 2011, while not all VAACs have their own forecasters (in such VAACs, forecasters share other aviation duties, too). VAAC Tokyo supports MWO Tokyo, also a part of JMA, as well as the ACCs in the area (JMA/VAAC Tokyo 2015).
As for VAAC operations, early detection of volcanic eruptions is crucial. To enable timely VAA provision, a VAAC monitors satellite imagery for volcanic ash clouds around the clock. Whenever a new eruption is identified, it announces the possibility of eruption through VAA issuance and continues VAA provisions until the volcanic ash cloud is dissipated. However, as satellite imagery is not continuous data, the initial detection can be delayed. For example, the new satellite of HIMAWARI-8, that was launched on October 7, 2014 and has been operational since July 7, 2015, principally provides imagery every ten minutes, and MTSAT-2, still in operation as a back-up, provides imagery twice per hour. Therefore, adding to the data from satellites, VAACs Anchorage and Tokyo also receive information about eruptions from relevant volcano organizations and sometimes from aircraft in operation. For example, the Alaska Volcano Observatory (AVO), operated conjointly by the University of Alaska and the United States Geological Survey (USGS), provides daily and weekly volcano reports to adjacent VAACs. Volcano observatories such as the Kamchatka Volcanic Eruption Response Team (KVERT) on behalf of the Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (IVS) Far East Branch of Russian Academy of Sciences and the Sakhalin Volcanic Eruption Response Team of the Institute of Marine Geology and Geophysics, provide not only daily and weekly volcano reports but also timely eruption information about volcanoes in Kamchatka Peninsula and Kurile Islands.
Volcano activities in Japan are monitored by four JMA Volcanic Observations and Warning Centers (VOWCs) located in Sapporo, Sendai, Tokyo and Fukuoka. VAAC Tokyo receives volcanic activity reports from these VOWCs immediately after eruptions. As the area of responsibility of VAAC Tokyo extends to the Philippines, the centre also receives timely information from the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS).
Information provided by most of these volcano observatories is called “Volcano Observatory Notice for Aviation” (VONA). While periodical information is useful to grasp the latest volcanic conditions, VONAs are indispensable for timely VAA provision by VAACs, especially with regard to the initial issuances. Given volcanoes in Kamchatka Peninsula are remarkably active, VAACs Tokyo and Anchorage often issue VAAs regarding volcanic ash clouds from those volcanoes based on VONAs from KVERT.
KVERT was established in 1993 aiming at improving safety for aviation during explosive eruptions. It has a similar goal to VAACs to reduce the risk of aircraft encountering volcanic ash clouds in the Northern Pacific region through timely detection of volcanic unrest, tracking of ash clouds, and prompt notification of airlines, civil aviation authorities, and others about the hazards (Gordeev and Girina 2014; Neal et al. 2009a, b). The complex analysis of published data on volcanic activity and the data from 22 years of KVERT’s continuous monitoring of volcanoes allows a quantitative evaluation of the hazard posed by volcanoes to aviation. The level of hazard to aviation from each of the Kamchatkan volcanoes is communicated by KVERT using the Aviation Colour Code recommended by ICAO (2004). When KVERT issues a VONA, it is automatically disseminated to VAACs Anchorage, Darwin, Montreal, Tokyo and Washington, and all international and local users of the Northern Pacific region such as ICAO, FAA, NOAA, AVO, USGS, the Yelizovo Airport Meteorological Center (Yelizovo AMC), the Kamchatka Hydro-Meteorological Center (KHMC), the Kamchatka Branch of the Ministry for Emergency Situations (KB MES), and mass media. It is also automatically uploaded on the KVERT website: http://www.kscnet.ru/ivs/kvert/van/ (Girina and Romanova 2015).
Adding to the volcanoes in Kamchatka Peninsula, several volcanoes in Japan are also very active; therefore, VAAC Tokyo frequently issues VAAs in this regard based on VONAs from JMA’s VOWCs.
Based on VONAs from volcano observatories adding to volcanic ash clouds detection in satellite imagery, VAACs issue VAAs designed to assist MWOs in preparing international standard Significant Meteorological Information (SIGMET) on volcanic ash clouds. VAAs, describing the latest extent and forecast trajectories of volcanic ash clouds, are updated every six hours so long as ash clouds are identified by satellite imagery. The VAAs are issued within the six hours if unforeseen changes occur in observations. The roles of relevant organizations and regulations of operations are given by ICAO (2007).
3 Case Study of Impacts of a Volcano Eruption onto Air Traffic
The impacts of volcanic eruptions are the strongest triggers for improvements in volcanic ash responses by relevant organizations because they give a true account of tasks to overcome as well as successful operations. This section shows two case study examples of major volcano eruptions and subsequent actions taken by relevant organizations.
3.1 Case Study #1
Eruption of Sarychev-Peak Volcano in 2009
An eruption of Sarychev-Peak Volcano in the Kurile Islands was detected at 01:59 UTC on June 12, 2009. VAAC Tokyo identified the eruption from satellite imagery and issued the first VAA at 06:49 UTC with an observed volcanic ash cloud at 34,000 ft extending to the east.
On the day of the eruption, only five aircraft requested re-routing; however, the volcanic ash cloud in the VAAC Tokyo’s area of responsibility reached 54,000 ft the next day according to the VAA issued by VAAC Tokyo, and the volcanic ash cloud continued to be observed at that height for one and a half days. As a result of the VAAs, most flights avoided the NOPAC route and flew through Russian airspace instead.
The volcanic ash cloud remained relatively high even after it lowered from the maximum height. Following a request from an airline, VAAC Tokyo therefore began providing VAA/VAG every three hours instead of the regular six-hour interval from around 09:00 UTC on June 16. Under this situation, some irregular incidents occurred and JCAB/ATMC as well as the Oakland ARTCC responded to each case. For example, a particular aircraft headed into the volcanic ash cloud area without knowing the situation and JCAB/ATMC was obliged to advise re-routing. Another example was that one particular airline, flying on a regional route in Southeast Asia, wished to request rerouting, but did not know where to make a request, so JCAB/ATMC in Japan and the Oakland ARTCC coordinated with JCAB/ATMC taking the role to respond to the request. Considering the situation, JCAB/ATMC issued a NOTAM at 12:53 UTC on June 22 describing the need to collect information about the volcanic ash cloud caused by the Sarychev-Peak Volcano eruption.
VAAC Washington ended advisory provision in its area of responsibility at 05:00 UTC on June 19. VAAC Tokyo announced the volcanic ash cloud dissipation at 02:52 UTC on June 23 and the VAAC Anchorage at 07:30 UTC on June 25. As the volcanic ash cloud remained for more than ten days, the impact on aviation operations was significant.
During this event, close communication between JCAB/ATMC and the Oakland ARTCC assisted successful collaborative operations. The flexibility of VAAC Tokyo in providing VAAs every three hours instead of the regular six-hour interval was also user-friendly because airlines were able to re-route with minimum detours based on the frequently-updated advisories. However, at the same time, this event highlighted a necessity for thorough information distribution so that no aircraft operates toward the volcanic ash cloud area (McGimsey et al. 2014; JMA/VAAC Tokyo 2010; NOAA/VAAC Anchorage 2015b; NOAA/VAAC Washington 2015).
3.2 Case Study #2
Eruption of Kliuchevskoi Volcano in 2013
A strong explosive and effusive eruption of Kliuchevskoi Volcano in the middle of Kamchatka Peninsula started on August 15, 2013 and lasted until December 20, 2013, with repeated eruptions and ash dissipation. VONA and VAA/VAGs on November 19 reported that the ash reached above 40,000 ft; however, the paroxysmal phase of eruption on October 15–20, in which explosions sent volcanic ash up to around 30,000–33,000 ft each time, was probably the most significant phase of the activity, because the volcanic ash cloud extended across the boundary of VAACs Tokyo and Anchorage’s areas of responsibility and both VAACs issued advisories for their respective areas of responsibility (Girina et al. 2014a, b; JMA/VAAC Tokyo 2014; KVERT/VONA 2013; NOAA/VAAC Anchorage 2015b).
As the volcanic ash cloud moved to the southeast and approached VAACs Washington and Montreal, those VAACs also issued transfer VAAs. When an ash cloud is approaching within 300 nautical miles from the boundary of areas of responsibility, VAACs to which the ash is approaching are required to transfer VAAs from a VAAC with volcanic ash in its airspace (ICAO 2004). In this way, as the volcanic ash cloud covered a wide area over the boundaries of multiple VAACs’ areas of responsibility, not only the volcanic ash cloud itself but also the situation that multiple VAACs issued VAAs and/or VAGs for its respective area of responsibility had an impact on users (JMA/VAAC Tokyo 2014; NOAA/VAAC Anchorage 2015b; NOAA/VAAC Washington 2015).
4 Particular Challenges of International Coordination in Volcanic Ash and Visions of the Future
As volcanic ash clouds flow regardless of borders, international cooperation/coordination is indispensable. Smooth communication between VAACs as well as among all the related organizations is essential in order to ensure safety. It is essential for volcano observatories, MWOs and VAACs to provide information on volcanic eruptions and sequential volcanic ash cloud diffusions to users such as airlines, civil aviation authorities, and relevant organizations in a way that users can grasp the situation easily. Users need to prepare effective risk management procedures and protocols for such cases. Close coordination/communication between information providers and users is required for smooth response against volcanic ash cloud emissions. Both information providers and users need to be prepared for various types of cases considering volcano locations, eruption duration, volcanic ash cloud propagation and coverage, as preferable responses may differ for each type. Adding to such preparation, a language skill is also required. As English is the standard international aviation language, some organizations in non-native English speaking countries encounter a language barrier that makes it difficult to coordinate/communicate smoothly, speedily and in detail.
Challenges being taken by information providers
Guideline of handover procedures
As described in the case study of the eruption of Kliuchevskoi Volcano in 2013, it is not user-friendly if two VAACs provide VAA/VAGs with a volcanic ash cloud area for their own individual areas of responsibility and/or if VAA/VAGs from two VAACs are inconsistent. Therefore, for continuous eruptions, VAACs Anchorage and Tokyo agreed to issue VAA/VAGs from one VAAC as much as possible even after the volcanic ash cloud area extends across the boundary of their areas of responsibility.
Challenge to collaborative decision analysis and forecast via chat system
In order to provide consistent advisories before and after the handover, it is better to share forecasters’ thoughts before volcanic ash clouds actually cross the border of the areas of responsibility, especially for a complicated or exceptional situation. Therefore, VAACs Anchorage and Tokyo have started testing a chat system for closer and more flexible communication. NOAA has provided its proprietary chat system and created an account for this challenge (Osiensky et al. 2014). As part of the test, the VAACs are aiming at finding necessary specific patterns of phenomena as well as phrases of questions and answers corresponding to them, and creating a template like a frequently-asked questions-sheet so that the communication will be smooth between members including non-native English speakers.
Challenges being taken by information users
The cooperation/coordination introduced before is undertaken by VAACs essentially as information providers. Considering the importance of international cooperation and coordination mentioned earlier, Volcanic Ash Exercises are conducted in some regions under the framework of ICAO. The first exercise was established in ICAO European and North Atlantic (EUR/NAT) region called the VOLCEX and has been conducted since 2008. Realizing the effectiveness of the VOLCEX, a similar exercise in the EUR (EAST) Region including Kamchatka Peninsula started in 2013 recognising that this region experiences frequent volcanic eruptions that often affect aviation operations especially around the NOPAC routes. Therefore, an exercise in this region, named VOLKAM, has been conducted and is making good progress in coordination procedures between all participating parties (air navigation service providers, air traffic management centres, aeronautical information services, volcano observatories, VAACs, MWOs and users such as airlines). So far, VOLKAM has been held every year: the first exercise was held from 21:00 UTC on January 15, 2013 to 06:00 UTC on January 16, 2013, the second one from 21:00 UTC on March 4, 2014 to 04:00 UTC on March 5, 2014 and the third one from 22:00 UTC on April 15, 2015 to 04:00 UTC on April 16, 2015. The exercises have a different focus each time and participants test new challenges during the exercises (ICAO 2014a, b, 2015a, b; JCAB 2015).
In addition to the volcanic ash exercises, when airlines make a detour at an actual eruption, they need to coordinate with relevant organizations for re-routing. The Cross Polar Trans East Air Traffic Management Providers Working Group (CPWG) is dealing with the topic of international coordination for re-routing and JCAB is one of the members of CPWG.
Determination of a re-route according to a scenario and a matrix on a response for a re-routing request
Once a notification of an eruption is received by a dispatcher, the potential impact to flights that are already en-route is evaluated and if the impact is expected, re-routing procedures will be taken. Re-routing should be conducted immediately because an encounter with a volcanic ash cloud may cause a fatal accident; even a small amount of volcanic ash can cause enormous financial costs with respect to repairing engines and other parts. As all flights in the volcanic ash-affected region undertake re-routing procedures, it should be well organized to accommodate all of them in a limited number of routes, considering the issue of remaining fuel. Additionally, there are regulations and/or restrictions in each State, such that re-routing options are not always accepted. Hence, it is quite effective to prepare a possible contingency route based on an assumed eruption in advance, even if it is a paper-plan and only used during an exercise. As this route has cleared the political issue and other conditions (like a fuel amount), it could be a realistic alternative route in case of a sudden eruption, surely saving time in coordination and implementation.
Use of VOLKAM sheet
During the exercise, each organization sent this VOLKAM Sheet to all participants via e-mail, with an organization name and a version number so that everybody understood which spreadsheet was the latest one to add new information about the present situation and/or planned actions. The usability of this sheet to improve situation awareness among the relevant organizations was tested during the exercise in 2015. The participants understood the idea that it would be better to prepare a communication method rather than a phone call, considering that they respectively have three languages as a native tongue, English, Russian and Japanese. When a spreadsheet with necessary information is shared, the merits are that it can at least avoid mishearing and misunderstanding, and the participants can read what was discussed again later.
The exercise in 2015, which tested the usability of written information on the VOLKAM sheet, highlighted areas for improvement. One prospect for improvement is to share the information via a website rather than a spreadsheet. The website would have access limited only to relevant organizations, where participants would have the ability to directly edit and update the website ensuring it remains current with the latest information.
Volcanic ash cloud can seriously affect aircraft and air services by causing engine failure, poor visibility due to ash-related scouring of aircraft windshields and take-off/landing delays due to ash accumulation at airports. As volcanic ash may cause a fatal accident and also as it crosses borders, it is essential to provide coherent and consistent volcanic ash-related information to airlines, civil aviation authorities, MWOs and other relevant organizations to avoid aviation disasters. Hence, international cooperation and coordination with the efforts of meteorological, volcanological and civil aviation authorities from multiple countries is indispensable.
Along with the requirement for proper information issuances and smooth coordination among relevant organizations, various efforts have been taken in some regions. As for the Northern Pacific region, volcanoes in Kamchatka Peninsula are remarkably active: this brings particular challenges for related organizations because a volcanic ash cloud frequently moves across the boundary of VAACs Tokyo and Anchorage’s areas of responsibility. They need to conduct handover procedures whenever it occurs, and especially when the volcanic ash cloud covers the NOPAC routes, ATMCs, ACCs and airlines coordinate for re-routing.
Among recent eruptions, those of Sarychev-Peak Volcano in 2009 and Kliuchevskoi Volcano in 2013 are introduced in this chapter as examples to illustrate successes and ongoing challenges of international eruption response coordination.
In this respect, VAACs Anchorage and Tokyo are working on a smoother handover and consistent information issuances using English. JCAB/ATMC and other aviation-related organizations are making similar efforts in a volcanic ash exercise in 2015 to grasp all the relevant information in one sheet in chronological order. The aim is to overcome language barriers, using a VOLKAM Sheet mainly for discussion on re-routing by sharing the present situation of the eruption phase, volcanic ash area, influence onto the traffic flow and aviation operations, as well as the expected coordination and actions by relevant organizations. The planning process itself for re-routing in the exercise is also meaningful: that will contribute to shorten the time required for coordination in a real case. In addition, an effort to share the present situation of each ANSP, responding to a re-routing request, by creating a matrix on such information has begun; members of CPWG are working on this task aiming at establishing a standardized procedure among all the ANSPs, as a long-term ideal outcome.
In this way, the volcanic ash- and/or aviation-related organizations will continue their work seeking for better coordination and operations, respectively.
Information as for the on-going efforts in JCAB given by Mr. Takayuki Harada, the deputy chief air traffic controller in JCAB, has been a great help to flesh out the article as well as making it well-balanced in highlighting efforts taken by both information providers and users.
Some of the figures were created using Generic Mapping Tools open-source software (GMT; Wessel, P. and W.H.F. Smith, New, improved version of Generic Mapping Tools released, EOS Trans. Amer. Geophys. U., Vol. 79, No. 47, p. 579, 1998).
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