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Queen's researchers prove for the first time that ash clouds can cross Atlantic Ocean

Scientists at Queen's University Belfast have led the discovery of a volcanic ash cloud that traveled from Alaska to Northern Ireland and beyond

Queen's University Belfast

Scientists at Queen's University Belfast have led the discovery of a volcanic ash cloud that travelled from Alaska to Northern Ireland and beyond - overturning previously held assumptions about how far ash deposits can drift, with major implications for the airline industry.

The discovery, which was made in partnership with an international team of academics and has been published in the journal Geology, is the first evidence that ash clouds can travel across the Atlantic Ocean, confirming Queen's as a global leader in research. This particular ash, found in sites across Europe, including Sluggan Bog near Randalstown, Co Antrim, has been traced to an eruption from Mount Bona-Churchill in Alaska, around AD 847.

The discovery has significant implications for the aviation industry as well as environmental science, illustrating Queen's impact on a global scale. The plumes spewed out by the volcano Eyjafjallajokull, in Iceland in 2010, caused major disruption and grounded over 100,000 international flights, costing airlines more than £2 billion.

With volcanoes like Mount Bona-Churchill - much more volatile than Eyjafjallajokull - scheduled to erupt on average every 100 years, another ash-cloud drama could be imminent, this time with consequences for trans-Atlantic as well as European travel.

Lead researcher Dr Britta Jensen from Queen's School of Geography, Archaeology and Paleoecology (GAP) said: "The ash, or tephra, is from Mount Bona-Churchill where it is called the White River Ash and occurs as a thick white layer spreading eastwards into Canada. Using chemical 'fingerprinting', the team has matched it to a tephra layer which occurs in Ireland, Norway, Germany and Greenland, where it is called the AD860B. For the past 20 years or so, European researchers assumed that AD860B came from a relatively nearby volcano in Iceland, which is the source of most ash in Europe, including that from Eyjafjallajokull in 2010. However, the AD860B never quite fitted with what researchers knew of volcanoes in Iceland."

Co-researcher Dr Sean Pyne-O'Donnell from Queen's School of GAP said the discovery was also significant in advancing knowledge across other disciplines, particularly in the area of climate change: "The layer was deposited very quickly after eruption, probably within a matter of days and can be used to precisely date and compare the relative timing of any environmental or archaeological events associated with it by tephro-chronology. This makes the layer very useful for researchers wanting to link together how climate behaved in distant parts of the world at this time. Such information is vital for climate scientists attempting to explain how climate worked in the past compared with the present. The team also speculates that other tephra layers from similar trans-Atlantic eruptions may yet be uncovered in other Irish sites."

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To read the full paper, click here: http://geology.gsapubs.org/content/42/10/875.full.pdf

For further information, contact the Queen's University Communications Officers Una Bradley on +0044 (0)28 9097 5320 (Mon-Wed) or Michelle Cassidy on +0044 (0)28 9097 5310 (Thurs-Fri) or email comms.officer@qub.ac.uk

Notes To Editors:

  • 1. Dr Sean Pyne-O'Donnell is available for interview. Media bids to the the Queen's University Communications Office on +0044 (0)28 9097 5320 (Mon-Wed) or +0044 (0)28 9097 5310 (Thurs-Fri) or email comms.officer@qub.ac.uk

  • 2. The full research team comprises:
    Britta J.L. Jensen1,2, Sean Pyne-O'Donnell2,3, Gill Plunkett2, Duane G. Froese1, Paul D.M. Hughes4, Michael Sigl5, Joseph R. McConnell5, Matthew J. Amesbury6, Paul G. Blackwell7, Christel van den Bogaard8, Caitlin E. Buck7, Dan J. Charman6, John J. Clague9, Valerie A. Hall2, Johannes Koch9,10, Helen Mackay4, Gunnar Mallon11, Lynsey McColl12, and Jonathan R. Pilcher2

    1Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta T6G 2E3, Canada
    2School of Geography, Archaeology, and Palaeoecology, Queen's University Belfast, Belfast BT7 1NN, UK
    3Department of Earth Science, University of Bergen, Allégaten 41, Bergen N-5007, Norway
    4Palaeoenvironmental Laboratory (PLUS), Geography and Environment, University of Southampton, Southampton SO17 1BJ, UK
    5Desert Research Institute, 2215 Raggio Parkway, Reno, Nevada 89512, USA
    6Department of Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter, Exeter EX4 4RJ, UK
    7School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Sheffield, Sheffield S10 2TN, UK
    8GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, Wischhofstrasse 1-3, Kiel D-24148, Germany
    9Department of Earth Sciences, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia V5A 1S6, Canada
    10Department of Geography, Brandon University, Brandon, Manitoba R7A 6A9, Canada
    11Department of Geography, University of Sheffield, Sheffield S10 2TN, UK
    12Select Statistics, Exeter Business Park, Exeter, Devon EX1 3LH, UK

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