Think back to a few disasters ago — before the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan and before the last Chilean miner climbed out of the mine, there was a volcanic eruption in Europe. You may remember the Icelandic eruption — especially if you were traveling — and it turns out that the travel-wrecking measures taken were appropriate.

In the days and weeks following the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, air traffic controllers grounded flights across Europe. The decision was costly (one estimate of losses stands at 2.5 billion euros), but a new study shows that the decision was correct.

A team of researchers from the University of Copenhagen and the University of Iceland have confirmed that volcanic ash can cause planes to crash, and they have developed a new system for dealing with future eruptions.

Let’s start with the plane crash finding. The University of Copenhagen reports that ash from the Eyjafjallajökull eruptions was “dangerous on all counts, so the authorities certainly made the right decision in April 2010.” This may be welcome news to the air traffic controllers who undoubtedly felt pressure to get planes into the air and the economy off the ground last spring.

Even better is the creation of a new system for getting planes on the ground quickly and sharing information. The lead researchers in the volcanic ash study, Susan Stip of the University of Copenhagen and Siggi Gislason at the University of Iceland, found methods to gather ash from volcanoes and quickly analyze it for toxicity or damage to people, animals and aircraft. The newly developed protocol for assessing the damage of future eruptions will provide useful safety information in less than 24 hours.

The system will prevent air traffic controllers from playing a dangerous guessing game, according to researcher Stip. "Aviation authorities were sitting on a knife-edge at the center of a huge dilemma. If they closed airspace unnecessarily, people, families, businesses and the economy would suffer, but if they allowed air travel, people and planes could be put at risk, perhaps with tragic consequences," Stip said.

New report says grounding planes after Icelandic volcano was life-saving decision
Two universities examine volcanic ash data and create a system for grounding planes and keeping the public informed.