Tales from the Volcanic Ash Trenches: VATLab

[Editor’s note: Today, I’m happy to welcome guest posters Alistair Davies and Daniel Blake, Doctoral Researchers at the University of Canterbury.


This is Ali. He is just starting his PhD in hazard resilience at the University of Canterbury. You can follow him and his adventures on his Tumblr, on Twitter, and a bunch of other social media–he’s everywhere!


And this is Daniel. He is a year+ into his PhD project on how volcanic hazards impact road transportation–very important when evacuating a place like Auckland! You can find him on LinkedIn.

This text is to insert a line break. This text is to insert a line break. This text is to insert a line break.This text is to insert a line break.This text is to insert a line break.This text is to insert This text was originally posted on Ali’s Tumblr on 24 May and is written from his perspective, though it has been updated by Daniel. All emphasis is mine. Now, let’s hear from Ali and Daniel!]

This week, I am helping Dan out with some volcanic ash testing for his PhD, which meant I got to be inducted into the University of Canterbury’s Volcanic Ash Testing Laboratory (VATLab)! There are whispers that once the new (post-earthquake) science building is built, a new VATLab is going to be built right in the centre, with much better facilities and a small crane for lifting heavy equipment. For the moment, though, the VATLab is little more than a fenced-off area in the basement of the Geology department, with barely enough headroom to stand up straight…! All the same, some pretty exciting research is taking place!

For his PhD, which is supported by the Earthquake Commission (EQC) and DEVORA, Dan is investigating the effect volcanic ash has on surface transportation networks. How ash changes the grip on the road has obvious implications for road transport during eruptions. Dan is using a Portable “Skid Resistance” Tester, which is a weighted pendulum arm with a bit of tyre rubber on the end. A piece of asphalt is placed beneath the tester and the arm is set up so, when released, the rubber makes contact with a specific distance of bare asphalt. The value the arm swings to after passing over the asphalt is recorded, and can be equated to a certain friction value. The real fun starts when ash is added to the road: Dan is testing lots of different thicknesses of ash, as well as different ash types, grain sizes, chemical content and wetness, so I am helping him get though the bulk of this testing.

Using the Portable “Skid Resistance” Tester with 7mm of ash on asphalt.

Dan also has two more experiments planned; one to investigate visibility through volcanic ash in the air, and the other to study how easily air filters in car engines become blocked by ash. The results of all of the VATLab tests will be used for transport modelling based on Auckland’s road network. This will allow us to better predict what it will be like to travel in Auckland during or after the next eruption in the volcanic field or through volcanic ash from elsewhere such as Taranaki or Ruapehu… interesting work given that we may have to live with the ash for days, months, or even years! His work will also allow road authorities and emergency managers to improve existing plans and issue appropriate advice to motorists who may encounter volcanic ash.

While I was down doing my testing for Dan, Eliana, a third-year Frontiers Abroad student from America was also there doing tests for her project in the VATLab. Eliana is investigating how different ash depths look when they are photographed or observed. This is really interesting research, as it could allow photographs post-eruption to be turned into data telling us how much ash has been erupted by a volcano. In order to do this, Eliana is setting up everyday objects and then dropping ash onto them until the amount measured on the floor reaches the desired depth: for example, 1mm. Safe to say, with both tests going on at the same time, things got pretty dusty down there, so I was very glad of my face mask and goggles!

Eliana dropping ash on to some plant leaves.

Eliana’s project also seems to be highlighting that even people experienced in seeing volcanic ash tend to estimate depths of erupted ash as too deep: I was certainly way off the mark!

Both are really exciting projects, so it is great to be able to get a small insight into them, and help out where I can. I am really looking forward to hearing more from both Dan and Eliana on what they find!

1 thought on “Tales from the Volcanic Ash Trenches: VATLab

  1. Pingback: A Volcanic Experience: Interning For DEVORA | City of Volcanoes

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