Scientists claim to have developed a new system which would alert pilots on board aircraft about volcanic eruptions, via e-mails, within minutes of suspicious lightning activity occurring near volcanoes.

An international team has developed the system which uses data from World Wide Lightning Location Network to create automated e-mail alerts within minutes of spotting suspicious lightning activity near volcanoes.

Craig Rodger of University of Otago, who leads the team, said the early warning system is an exciting development for both the network and in helping to ensure safer skies.

“In some of the world’s remote regions that otherwise lack good monitoring of volcanic activity, this system could pick up the slack and allow local aviation early warning of potentially hazardous ash plumes,” Rodger said.

In October this year, the system proved its potential by giving the first indication of an eruption of a volcano in Kamchatka in the Russian Far East, he said.

The system involves monitoring lightning strokes occurring around all of the world’s 1500 or so volcanoes, as well as more distant lightning from each volcano (up to 100km) to help determine if new strokes over the volcano are possibly weather related.

Because weather-related lightning is very common in many parts of the world where volcanoes are found, only those in Alaska, the Marianas, and the Russian Far East are currently assigned to the automatic realtime alerts, he said.

“To avoid ‘crying wolf’, local meteorological conditions in other regions would need to be more carefully checked before any warnings were issued,” he said.

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