2012 Winner's Entry

8th Grade Winner:

Team: Otago Boys (Oliver Jarvis, Yang Li)
School: Otago Boys’ High School
Location: Dunedin, New Zealand
Adult Sponsor: Pru Casey


Yellowstone Ash Disaster

Saving the world from a satellite

By Oliver Jarvis & Yang Li



The situation:

It is the year 2040. Fossil fuels are no longer used around the world; almost everyone on the planet uses solar energy and fuel from plants and algae to meet their energy needs. A volcanic eruption from the Yellowstone Super volcano has caused the sun to be blocked out by about 10% around the world, due to a giant cloud of ash and aerosol particles that is circling the globe. It is predicted that it will take at least 2-3 years for the emergency to be controlled, though there may be problems for many more years to come. We are on an orbiting space station when the volcano erupts, and our government tells us that we will have to remain on the station for the next 2-3 years, since they cannot send anyone to help us until the emergency situation has been controlled. Our space station is self-sufficient, so we can produce all of the breathable air, food and water that we will need while in orbit. However, our space station is part of a massive orbiting solar energy array, so we can send electricity, images, and messages to a limited number of people on the ground as we pass overhead.

Effects of the eruption and ash cloud:
How would a massive volcanic eruption disrupt life for people, animals and plants on the ground, both near the volcano and worldwide? What could we do to help the emergency situation from the space station? Specifically describe how we would prioritize your time and the solar energy resources on the station to help people on the ground, especially if there were more people that need help than we could ever possibly assist from the space station.The ash cloud and eruption would massively disrupt life for people, animals and plants on the ground, impacting health, water, power, transportation, communication, agriculture, buildings and wildlife.

Yellostone Cladera rim faults


A major super volcanic eruption will have a serious effect on the health of those close the eruption and a moderate effect of on the health of those around the world. For those close to the eruption a major concern is hot ash could cause burns and ash could be inhaled, causing asphyxiation, which is the condition of being deprived of oxygen, these could lead to death. Falling ash can also cause eye and skin irritation to anyone who is exposed to it. Another main cause of injury and death in an eruption is roof collapse. This is caused by falling ash piling on top of roofs of houses and buildings, until the roof collapses under the weight, falling on those taking shelter in buildings (see section 2.7 Buildings).
Long term effects of the eruption and resulting ash cloud would likely include, breathing issues, eyesight issues and a possible vitamin D deficiency, caused by lack of sunlight if he ash lingers for a long period of time. This can lead to Rickets and Osteomalacia, both of which are diseases involving the softening and weakening of bones.

For those further away from the site of the eruption, health issues would be less severe. Ash would be more dissipated in the air and so would present less serious conditions in terms of asphyxiation and other respiration issues.


Inhalation Hazard sign


Volcanic ash presents problems to water supply, treatment and disposal. Tiny rocks can block pipes and ash can pollute water. Often in areas where a volcanic eruption has taken place, contamination levels in local water has risen.
 Pollution of water may result in insufficient clean water for people to drink in affected areas.

Ash covering a lake indythink.blogspot.com


Vulnerability of water to contamination - chart taken from http://volcanoes.usgs.gov


Power Supply
Power supply could be affected in various ways in the case of a volcanic eruption, these include causing insulator flashover problems, adhering to insulative surfaces and increased corona activity.
Insulator flashover problems, which are high-voltage electric short circuits, occur when ash on surfaces contacts with moisture.
Wet ash sticks to all surfaces, and could cause major electrical damage to any conductive surfaces that it comes into contact with, unlike dry ash which can only stick to horizontal surfaces, and so can cause less electrical damage.  
Increased corona activity is caused by ash contamination on insulators and conductors; this can cause radio interference and audible noise.


An eruption of this stage will disrupt transportation systems over a very large area for weeks or even months.
Ash fall could create visibility problems on roads. Vehicle headlights and brake lights could become ineffective.

Ash may also cause the road’s surface to become slippery, either by absorbing all the water and making cars lose traction or by being too dry and causing the surface to also become slippery. Road markings can also be covered making driving dangerous.
Life threatening and costly damages can occur to aircrafts when flying through an eruption cloud.
Experimental tests by Dunn and Wade in 1994 determined the following mechanisms that can affect aircraft performance due to exposure to a volcanic ash cloud:

  1. Deposition of material on hot-section components.
  2.  Erosion of compressor blades and rotor-path components.
  3. Blockage of fuel nozzles and cooling passages.
  4. Contamination of the oil system and bleed-air supply.
  5. Opacity of windscreen and landing lights.
  6. Contamination of electronics.
  7. Erosion of antenna surfaces.
  8. Plugging of the pitot-static system which indicates the airspeed of the aircraft.

This would mean that transportation would be heavily disrupted in the event of a large volcanic eruption, making planes unable to fly near the ash cloud and roads near the eruption unusable.


Ash covering a plane jalopnik.com



Ash in the air can cause many serious effects on communication. In an eruption column large amounts of electrically charged ash can be released, swamping radio waves and telephone signals with interference, often rendering them inoperative. Ash also damages telephone exchanges and machinery, entering through air intake systems and damaging electrical and mechanical systems, due to its corrosive, abrasive and conductive properties.


Volcanic ash will ruin crops and livestock in the event of ash falling onto agricultural land. Areas used for agriculture close to the eruption will receive heavy ash fall, and areas further away will still be damaged by light ash fall.
Ash covering the sun making the land dark will cause plants to die, meaning less food for animals. In areas where the sun is still visible, ash falling will still cover pasture, forcing animals off their feed, and toxins in the ash could be poisonous for livestock.
Water supplies for the animals will also be contaminated (see section 2.2 Water).


Cattle in a field covered by volcanic ash paws.org.au


As almost no buildings or settlements are located close to the volcano, the primary damage to buildings will be caused by ash.
Ash is very similar to snow in the way that it damages buildings. Both pile up outside, blocking doors and windows and trapping people inside as the weight of it on the roof slowly increases, until the roof cannot support it and collapses, often killing or injuring people inside. A good example of this is the eruption of Mount Pinatubo on June 15, 1991, where ash pileup on roofs killed around 300 people.
However, in the wrong circumstances, ash is much more deadly than snow. This is because ash is denser, it won't melt, and it can clog gutters, causing them to collapse. The weight of ash can vary from 400-700kg/m3 and than number can increase by 50-100% when it get wet, making ash far more dense than snow, which has a density of around 50-300 km/m3.
The ability of buildings to support an ash load is dependent on structure, design, the slope of roofs, which may cause ash to simply slide off and whether or not the area has snow or ash construction protocols which may help to lessen the effect of the load.
Ash can damage mechanical and electrical systems because of the abrasive and mildly corrosive nature of it. Air-movement systems and air conditioners are vulnerable to ash damage and filter blockage, especially if air intakes are horizontal surfaces. Damage can be prevented by turning off such systems before an ash fall begins or immediately at first signs of ash fall. In many cases damage can be avoided by taking steps to avoid use and contamination during ashy conditions and thorough cleaning of equipment before and after use.


Clark Air Force Base covered in ash cnsm.csulb.edu


Wildlife around the area of the eruption will be heavily disrupted by the volcanic eruption. Animals will have their sources of food and habitat affected by the volcanic ash (see section 2.6 Agriculture).
Falling ash will cause the death of many animals and others will die from the lack of food, water and shelter.
This will cause the extinction of some species, and from this, more species will become extinct as the food web/chain will have been broken.

Although the volcanic eruption would massively disrupt life on Earth, there are ways we can help from the space station: by distributing resources such as aerial images, power and information, or by coordinating other operations such as iron fertilisation schemes and filter tunnel schemes.


Helping from the space station
From the orbiting array power, signals and images will be transferred to people on the ground. It could serve as a communications relay, an orbital camera to supply people with images of the ash cloud, its effects and its size and speed. This will give people vital information that will help them survive the disaster. Power will be able to be supplied to areas who may have insufficient or no power, aiding in powering essential systems to help people survive.  Images from space will provide information on how the ash is spreading, informing people of when and where evacuations are necessary, allowing them to predict damage and helping co-ordinate responses.
A big factor in how resources are allocated from us to the ground depends on the situation on the ground.  Power, images and communication will be mainly supplied to the areas that have the best chance of surviving longer with the resources, rather than those who need it most. This is because resources could be wasted if they are sent to places who will be unable to survive even with them when they could have been used to aid others.


Iron fertilisation
As we are orbiting the Earth we have a good aerial view of the planet, and so one way we could help to contain the ash crisis is to help co-ordinate a large iron fertilisation scheme. Iron fertilisation is based around the theory that large zones of oceans which are nutrient rich, and yet contain little to no plankton or algae. The theory is that their growth is limited by the amounts of iron in the water. Iron is a vital micronutrient for phytoplankton growth and photosynthesis, so large deposit of iron particles would cause a massive growth in phytoplankton. According to a recent study, 1kg of the right sized iron particles could generate a growth of over 100,000kg of plankton biomass. Large amounts of phytoplankton would help reduce CO2 in the atmosphere and help to counter the climate change brought on by the volcano by a significant amount through photosynthesis. This method would be most effective if deployed early, as the whole eco-system would grow.

This method was also have the side effect of helping to repair ecological damage to ocean wildlife, as plankton is at the very bottom of the food chain, so the benefits would seep through to every other creature in that food chain.


Filter tunnels
As well as coordinating an iron fertilisation scheme, we could also help coordinate a plan to use filter fans.
To help remove ash from the air, we will try to organise the construction of
several massive filter tunnels by people on the ground. The filter tunnels will be similar to a jet engine, but on a much larger scale, with a filter preventing ash and soot from leaving. Overall they would work like very large vacuum cleaners; just sucking ash out of the air instead of dirt out of the ground. The engines to power the tunnel would need large amounts of power so these would probably only be built by areas who have not lost power due to the ash’s conductivity and flashover. For maximum efficiency they would have to be run until the tunnel was filled with ash and soot, and then emptied of ash before restarting the process. The ash could then be handled at will and be stored, buried, or if compressed and treated properly then the fly ash, which is small particles of ash released in combustion, could even be turned into fly ash brick, which is a strong, cheap and easy to use construction material similar to stone. With enough filter tunnels running, towns and cities would quickly remove large quantities of ash from the air, while providing materials to build new buildings. With proper co-ordination, Filter tunnels could be strategically placed to ensure the maximum amount of ash is removed from the atmosphere.

Life on Earth would be majorly affected; there would be many different types of problems such as damage to health, buildings, transport and communication. But from the space station we would be able to help the people on the ground, by distributing resources, and helping to coordinate other operations such as iron fertilisation and filter tunnels to clean up the volcanic ash. And as long as these resources are distributed effectively to the right places, and operations are done efficiently and strategically, the Yellowstone ash disaster will be fixed, and with time life on Earth will return to normal.

Fly ash bricks alibaba.com


  • volcanoes.usgs.gov
  • en.wikipedia.org
  • indythink.blogspot.com
  • cnsm.csulb.edu
  • jalopnik.com
  • paws.org.au
  • alibaba.com