GREECE: Was the volcano disruption really necessary?

A small amount of money spent on research and development might have prevented the huge economic consequences and social chaos caused by the eruption of the Icelandic volcano, Greek geologists say.

Geology professor Spyros Pavlidis and his research team at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki have developed a procedure to assess the results of volcanic activity. This may provide an answer to the problems caused by the Iceland eruption.

The researchers submitted their findings to the Greek Education Ministry for inclusion in a European Union programme for funding research. As yet they have not been informed whether it has been approved.

Pavlidis and his team have been studying the volcano in the Aegean island of Santorini, which has remained inactive since 1610. By testing various models, they have developed a 'volcanic danger estimation programme' which, if augmented with other programmes from countries with experience of volcanic phenomena, could be used worldwide to prevent or minimise the repercussions.

According to Pavlidis, the Icelandic volcano eruption took Europe by surprise because currently no system in any country measures volcanic steam, smoke or ash in the way other pollutants are measured. He points out that volcanic ash varies from one volcano to another and sometimes even from one eruption to another in the same volcano.

"We could have been informed by our scientific colleagues in Iceland of the composition of the volcanic ash and with this specific programme we could ascertain the exact weight of the particles and, in combination with the prevailing climatic conditions, we could easily determine the direction of the volcanic ash, its speed and its density over specific areas at a specific time," Pavlidis says.

"In other words, we would have been able to track it very closely and assess its potential danger at any given time at any given area. We could, in this way, inform in real time and with great reliability where flights could take place even within the volcanic nebula since we would have been able to assess the exact degree of danger at any given moment."

The Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and the Pavlidis team work closely with several other universities in Greece as well as in Italy where geologists have a great deal of experience with volcanoes, and with the University of Hawaii, those in Cyprus and many more.

The programme was developed for Greece but Pavlidis and his team are confident that, given sufficient financial help and the assistance of other universities with an interest in this area, it could apply universally.

Pavlidis says that unfortunately expenditure on research in Greece is 0.54% of the country's gross national product- the lowest in the EU. That is why his team is looking for finance from an EU source.

He estimated it would need EUR50,000 to develop the system - a small proportion of what the airlines lost in cancelled flights.

* Reports of how academics, conference organisers and universities were affected by the eruption are published in this week's Uni-Lateral section while a story in our Science Scene section describes the reaction of vulcanologists to the Iceland saga.