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Cambridge NERC Doctoral Training Partnerships

Graduate Research Opportunities

Supervisors: Anja Schmidt (Chemistry/Geography), Claire Witham (Met Office) and Paul Williams (University of Reading)

Importance of the area of research:

Airborne volcanic ash is a well-recognized hazard to jet engine aircraft. Sulfur dioxide (SO2) is also emitted by volcanoes, but in contrast to volcanic ash there are no criteria for SO2 to define when airspace is considered hazardous or non-hazardous. However, SO2 and its chemical conversion products (sulfuric acid vapours and aerosol particles) are well-known ground-level pollutants that can have detrimental effects on human health. Aircraft encounters with volcanic gas and aerosol clouds potentially necessitate more frequent maintenance cycles for aircraft due to an increased risk of corrosion and erosion of compressor blades and other engine components [Swadźba et al., 1993]. Despite the known hazards, none of the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centres (VAACs) worldwide is, at present, required to forecast the dispersion or concentration of volcanic SO2, although VAACs have started to utilize satellite retrievals of volcanic SO2 to inform their volcanic ash forecasts and the requirements to monitor SO2 may change further in future.

Project summary:

Volcanic ash has long been recognized as a hazard to aviation, but there is now a growing awareness of the potential hazards from volcanic gases [Carn et al., 2009; Schmidt et al., 2014], in particular sulfur dioxide (SO2), yet these hazards are poorly quantified. The aim of this PhD studentship is to systematically assess volcanic gas hazards to aviation from global to regional scales using atmospheric climate and dispersion models. The student will tackle research questions such as "How does past and future jet stream variability (and other large-scale circulation) influence the en-route risk of aircraft encountering volcanic sulfur plumes in the Northern Hemisphere?".

The outcomes from this PhD project will have direct relevance to the aviation industry including engine manufacturers, operational forecasting of volcanic pollutants and aircraft routing during eruptions.

What the student will do:

The student will create a global hindcast hazard map of volcanic SO2 concentrations along major flight routes from 1980-2015 analyzing output from Community Earth System Model (CESM) simulations. These existing simulations were run using a time-varying volcanic SO2 emissions inventory based on satellite observations. This work will identify the scale of the potential hazard of aircraft encounters with volcanic sulfur species. The student will then asses the importance of past and future jet-stream variability in affecting plume transport and positioning relative to key flight routes, in particular focusing on recent past eruptions in the Northern Hemisphere that affected the aviation industry. Lastly, the student will focus on the United Kingdom and investigate the appropriateness of using weather-typing (e.g. Großwetterlagen) for assessing and forecasting  ‘real-time' hazards and potential disruption to the aviation industry (e.g. airport closures) due to volcanic sulfur from Icelandic eruptions.

Please contact the lead supervisor directly for further information relating to what the successful applicant will be expected to do, training to be provided, and any specific educational background requirements.


Carn, S., A. Krueger, N. Krotkov, K. Yang, and K. Evans (2009), Tracking volcanic sulfur dioxide clouds for aviation hazard mitigation, Nat Hazards, 51(2), 325-343.

Schmidt, A., et al. (2014), Assessing hazards to aviation from sulfur dioxide emitted by explosive Icelandic eruptions, Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, 2014JD022070.

Swadźba, L., B. Formanek, H. M. Gabriel, P. Liberski, and P. Podolski (1993), Erosion- and corrosion-resistant coatings for aircraft compressor blades, Surface and Coatings Technology, 62(1-3), 486-492.

Follow this link to find out about applying for this project.

Other projects available from the Lead Supervisor can be viewed here.

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