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May 18, 2016

The 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland grounded thousands of flights, stranded passengers (including myself) for days, and cost airlines almost $1.5 billion. But this type of unpredicable delay may soon be a thing of the past, as NASA has recently revealed new technology that better maps dangerous ash clouds.

The government agency posted a video on their YouTube page explaining how “data from NASA earth-observing satellites is improving the ability to detect and forecast the hazard to aviation from volcanic clouds.” As of now, the ash cloud, which can damage airplanes and cause engine failure, is not detectable by airborne weather radar—meaning sky traffic can be grounded in the event of an eruption.

Scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland have developed a way to use sulfur dioxide, the element that distinguishes a volcanic cloud for a regular one, to detect ash clouds. The researchers are hoping to share their satellite data with agencies that track volcanic clouds, allowing them to quickly issue alerts to the FAA and the National Weather Service.

“The goal of these agencies that respond to volcanic eruptions is to make sure that lives and property are protected,” said David Schneider, PhD, in the video. “But just as importantly is to try and minimize the disruptions to the air traffic system.”

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