Improvements of volcanic ash fall forecasts issued by the Japan Meteorological Agency
© Hasegawa et al.; licensee Springer. 2015
Received: 29 May 2014
Accepted: 16 December 2014
Published: 24 January 2015
Since March 2008, the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) has operated a Volcanic Ash Fall Forecast (VAFF) system to issue forecasts of areas in Japan where ash falls are expected following volcanic eruptions. The hazardous effects of ash falls vary according to the quantity of ash generated and have different consequences for agriculture, communication and transport networks, and buildings. The prediction techniques based on the JMA Regional Atmospheric Transport Model were recently revised by the Meteorological Research Institute of JMA to allow predictions of the quantity and areas of ash fall, and areas to be affected by lapilli fall. JMA plans further improvements to the VAFF system to address the needs of people living near active volcanoes and to take into account expert advice in fields such as volcanology, disaster prevention, and broadcasting and medical services. The improved VAFF system will provide three types of information: a regular information before possible eruption, a brief preliminary forecast issued 5–10 minutes after an eruption, and a full forecast issued 20–30 minutes after an eruption. JMA has developed a table to accompany VAFFs that categorizes the hazardous effects for people according to various quantities of ash fall, and provides advice on preparedness measures and actions to be taken when an ash fall occurs. The new VAFF system will also provide predictions of areas of expected lapilli fall. JMA will start operation of the new VAFF system in spring 2015.
Since March 2008, the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) has operated the Volcanic Ash Fall Forecast (VAFF) system to provide forecasts when ash falls are expected to affect large areas. However, the present system predicts only the areas where ash may fall. A survey of VAFF users conducted in 2012 by JMA in areas close to active volcanoes (e.g. Asamayama, Kirishimayama, and Sakurajima) demonstrated strong demand for forecasts of the quantity of ash falls, prediction of areas of expected lapilli falls, and early issue of VAFFs. Recent studies by the Meteorological Research Institute (MRI) of JMA and an upgrade of the JMA supercomputer system will allow JMA to improve the current system by adding predictions of the quantity of ash falls and information about expected lapilli falls.
Volcanic ash falls affect buildings and many areas of human activity, such as traffic, infrastructure lifelines, agriculture, forestry, fisheries, and human health (e.g. Mt. Fuji Hazard Map Examination Committee 2004; Horwell and Baxter 2006; Wilson et al. 2012). The hazards differ among these areas, and also according to the quantity of ash falls. Prediction of the quantity of ash falls is important for disaster mitigation or prevention. In March 2013, JMA presented a Proposal for Advanced VAFF at a meeting of the Working Group on Advanced VAFF. Based on that proposal, JMA will update the existing VAFF system to incorporate new capabilities and create a distribution system for forecasts. JMA plans to have the new system operational in spring 2015.
Present VAFF system
JMA Criteria for issue of VAFFs (effective March 2014)
Observation of an eruption of plume height ≥3000 m above the crater rim. For plume heights of 1000–3000 m, a VAFF may be issued under some circumstances.
Observation of an eruption of plume height ≥2000 m above the crater rim.
Observation of an eruption of plume height ≥2500 m (criterion was 3000 m until May 20, 2013) above the crater rim.
Other Japanese volcanoes
Observation of an eruption plume height of ≥3000 m above the crater rim.
Number of VAFFs issued by JMA from March 31, 2008 to March 31, 2014
2008 (Mar 31–Dec)
Contributions to improvement of the VAFF system
Improvements to ash-fall forecasts
Predictions of the areas and quantities of ash fall, and of areas of lapilli fall, have been improved in accuracy as a result of recent studies by MRI (Hashimoto et al. 2012; Shimbori et al. 2014). These studies document the use of weather radar systems to accurately measure the heights of volcanic plumes, which provide important initial data for predictive use. The recent upgrade of the JMA supercomputer system has also improved the precision of ash-fall and lapilli-fall predictions.
Survey to determine needs of VAFF users
During March to September 2012, JMA carried out a survey to determine the needs of VAFF users in areas near volcanoes where there have been recent ash falls. Participants included disaster prevention organizations near Sakurajima, Kirishimayama, and Asamayama volcanoes (227 responses), local communities near those three volcanoes (386 responses), and local government authorities near 47 other active volcanoes in Japan (116 responses). The 47 volcanoes were selected on the recommendation of the Coordinating Committee for Prediction of Volcanic Eruption, a consultant body that advises the Director General of JMA.
Questions in the survey addressed VAFF users’ needs in terms of the specific types of information they require, the timing of issue of VAFFs, and their means of access to VAFFs. Respondents were asked to consider their needs for VAFFs issued at three stages: before an eruption, immediately after the onset of an eruption, and after an eruption.
The result of the survey showed strong demand for early forecasts of the onset time and severity of ash fall and the areas to be affected, and information about areas to be affected by lapilli fall. The full survey results were published by JMA (2013).
Working group on advanced VAFF
JMA formed a Working Group on Advanced VAFF, which held meetings on July 5 and November 8, 2012, and February 19, 2013. The 16-member group included representatives from disaster prevention organizations, agricultural organizations, medical and broadcasting services, local government bodies, and volcanologists. The working group considered the results of the 2012 survey and sought to identify ways of improving the VAFF system to provide more-effective disaster mitigation. Matters discussed included how and what information should be provided, the conditions under which VAFFs should be issued, and appropriate forecasts for affected communities for various quantities of ash fall.
Outcomes of the meetings were published in March 2013 (Working Group on Advanced VAFF 2013b) and are summarized below.
VAFFs should be issued when the forecast quantity of an ash fall is likely to affect local communities or the utilities they depend on in their daily life.
VAFFs should be easy for people to understand and act upon, and should include information about forecast lapilli falls.
VAFFs should be issued at three stages:
Before a possible eruption: regular information, including forecasts of areas that may be affected by ash fall and the likelihood of lapilli fall.
As soon as possible after the onset of an eruption: preliminary release of a brief forecast of the quantity of ash fall, areas to be affected, and the likelihood of lapilli fall.
After an eruption: when sufficient data are available, a detailed forecast of when ash fall will start and its quantity and areas to be affected.
VAFFs should categorize ash falls according to quantity, describe the potential impacts of each category on human health, transport systems, and utilities, and provide advice as to the appropriate actions to be taken by the general public during and after ash falls.
There should be a trial VAFF distribution to local government bodies near Sakurajima volcano incorporating the recommended improvements to the VAFF system and seeking their feedback.
Case studies are needed that illustrate the effects and appropriate actions for the general public for different quantities of ash fall.
Where applicable, results of volcanological studies undertaken at universities and other research institutions should be used to improve the VAFF system.
Future volcanic ash fall forecasts
Comparison of present and proposed VAFFs
Type and timing of forecast
Volcanic Ash Fall Forecast
Issued within 30–40 min of onset of eruption
Issued regularly (e.g. 3 hourly) before possible eruption
Issued within 5–10 min of onset of eruption
Issued within 20–30 min of onset of eruption
Forecast1 of situation at six 1-h intervals after onset of eruption: Ash fall area. Prefectures where ash may fall
Forecast1 for an assumed eruption: Ash-fall area. Lapilli-fall area. Recommended actions for affected communities
Forecast2 for first hour after onset of eruption: Ash-fall area and quantity. Municipalities affected. Lapilli-fall area. Recommended actions for affected communities
Forecast2 of situation at six 1-h intervals after onset of eruption: Ash-fall area and quantity. Municipalities affected. Start of ash fall for each municipality. Recommended action for affected communities
Sequential release of three types of VAFF: regular information issued before an possible eruption, a brief preliminary forecast issued 5–10 minutes after an eruption starts, and a full forecast issued 20–30 minutes after the eruption.
VAFFs will be issued in Japanese in both graphical and text formats.
VAFFs will be issued for ash-fall quantities in the moderate and much categories (Figure 5).
VAFFs will provide predictions of areas of lapilli fall (lapilli size ≥1 cm) separated from predictions of ash fall and provide recommended actions for people in areas affected, because ash fall and lapilli fall pose different hazards. Ash fall can, for example, cause a loss of traction on roadways whereas lapilli fall can break windshields of cars. Furthermore, some lapilli fall damage can occur even in areas of moderate ash fall. In addition, the prediction of area of lapilli fall was also strongly needed from users of VAFF (JMA 2013).
Types of forecast
Information issued before an eruption (Regular Information)
Since the 1980s, JMA has issued current and forecast information about winds above Sakurajima volcano at regular intervals (e.g. twice daily) to allow local residents to prepare for possible ash fall.
Brief forecast issued immediately after an eruption (Preliminary Forecast)
To facilitate early issue, JMA has prepared in advance various model forecasts for different conditions (eruption time, plume height, wind direction). When an eruption starts, JMA will use the model forecast that best fits the observed conditions for the Preliminary Forecast.
Full Forecast issued after the eruption (Full Forecast)
Format of VAFFs
VAFF information will be provided in the following formats.
Textual information will be provided in Extensible Markup Language (XML).
Graphical information will be provided in Portable Document Format (PDF) format.
For specialist users, quantitative forecasts (g/m2) of ash fall will be provided as numerical data at the JMA website.
Categories of ash-fall quantity
Quantitative predictions of the amount of ash fall (expressed in g/m2) include some errors and may be difficult for non-specialist VAFF users to understand. Therefore, ash-fall quantities will be expressed in three qualitative categories (little, moderate, and much), as proposed by the Working Group on Advanced VAFF. These categories will each be accompanied by estimates of the expected thickness of ash deposits, a simple description (including photos) of the conditions that communities may encounter after an ash fall (road conditions, reduced visibility), and recommended safety precautions to be taken by the general public (Figure 5).
Information about lapilli fall
Examples of damage due to lapilli fall after recent eruptions in Japan (since 1970)
Eruption date (yyyy/mm/dd)
Size of lapilli
Windshield of car, glass pane in front door of house
Injuries to people, car window, house window
Windshield of car, slate roof
Windshield of car
Window of car
Windshield of car, slate roof
Window of car, greenhouse
Window of car
Windshield of car
Solar panel and fittings
Window of car
Trial distribution of proposed new VAFF
Since April 2013, JMA has trialed distribution of the proposed new VAFF (as described above and based on real eruption data) to local government authorities in the region of Sakurajima volcano. In this region, the residents of Kagoshima city (population ~600,000) have experienced frequent ash falls for several decades. JMA will use feedback from the trial to further refine the contents of VAFFs and the conditions under which they are issued.
Further refinements of VAFF system
JMA and MRI will continue to work together to refine the VAFF system. Areas to be addressed include:
Improvement of RATM-based ash-fall predictions for strong wind conditions and for large-scale eruptions.
Development of a method to estimate volcanic plume height, eruption column mass and eruption duration at times when bad weather prevents visual observations and observations using radar data and satellite imagery.
Regular examination of the relationship between ash-fall quantity and its effect on people, and review of the recommended actions for affected communities.
Regular review of the three categories of ash-fall quantity and the thresholds that separate them (Figure 5).
The Working Group on Advanced VAFF (2013b) recommended further work on the accuracy of the JMA ash-fall prediction model RATM, for periods of strong winds and review of the methodology used to calculate the mass of ash in a volcanic plume. These two issues are discussed below.
Effect of strong winds on forecast accuracy
For initial predictions of areas of ash fall, the JMA-RATM assumes that ash plumes form a vertical column directly above the crater (Shimbori et al. 2010). Under the influence of strong winds, an ash plume (and the lapilli it contains) may drift leeward and diverge from the vertical, thus resulting in lapilli fall over a greater area than predicted, as was suggested by the Working Group on Advanced VAFF (2013b). Although we do not have sufficient data to allow us to examine ash falls under strong wind conditions, we consider that strong winds will reduce the accuracy of our ash-fall predictions.
The current model for plume formation needs revision to take into account the effect of strong winds (Suzuki and Koyaguchi 2013). In addition, local topographic effects near the volcano, assumed grain-size distribution, and vertical distribution of lapilli in the initial eruption column model also need to be considered adequately. Evaluation of these factors should be the subject of future research.
Estimation of mass of volcanic ash in ash plumes
The JMA-RATM estimates the mass of volcanic ash in a plume by applying a formula based on empirical data from past eruptions in various parts of the world (plume height, eruption duration, and field data on actual areas of ash fall; Sect. A.2 of Shimbori et al. (2010). To date, we have applied this model regardless of plume size; however, the Working Group on Advanced VAFF (2013b) suggested that this approach might not be accurate for small eruptions.
Between April 2013 and February 2014 there were only four eruptions at Sakurajima volcano for which there were sufficient observations to allow us to compare observed and predicted masses of ash generated. Although our estimate was accurate for the largest of these eruptions (16:31 JST on August 18, 2013), which generated an ash plume that rose 5000 m above the crater, we underestimated the masses of ash for the three smaller eruptions, which had plume heights of 2400–3300 m.
These results suggest that the estimates of the masses of ash in plumes that we obtained by using the current approach are inaccurate for small eruptions. As suggested by the Working Group on Advanced VAFF (2013b), further study is needed to improve these estimates.
To improve the current VAFF system and make it a more-effective tool for disaster prevention or mitigation, JMA took into account the needs of VAFF users and the opinions of experts in various fields including disaster prevention organizations. The current VAFF provides only forecasts of areas of ash fall. Important improvements to be implemented in the new VAFF system are the provision of predictions of ash-fall quantity and areas of lapilli fall. Two factors that have made important contributions to these improvements are advances in the methodology for prediction of ash-fall quantity and areas of lapilli fall as a result of studies by MRI, and increased processing capacity of the JMA supercomputer system following a recent upgrade.
The main improvements incorporated in the new VAFF system are as follows.
Three types of VAFF will be sequentially issued: information issued before an eruption (Regular Information), a brief forecast issued within 10 minutes of the onset of an eruption (Preliminary Forecast) and a more extensive and accurate forecast issued within 30 minutes of the onset of the eruption (Full Forecast).
VAFFs will be issued in Japanese in both graphical format and text format.
JMA will provide with VAFFs a table that categorizes ash fall by quantity, documents the potential effects on people for each category and the preparedness measures they should take.
VAFFs will be issued for ash falls of moderate and much quantity.
In addition to forecasts of areas of ash fall provided in current VAFFs, the new VAFFs will include predictions of ash-fall quantity and areas of lapilli fall (for lapilli size ≥1 cm), and recommended precautions for people to take during and after ash and lapilli falls.
JMA plans to start using the new VAFF system in spring 2015, and will continue to review and make further improvements in the future.
We are grateful to the chairman (Prof. A. Tanaka) and members of the Working Group on Advanced VAFF for their contributions to this project. We thank the people who participated in our survey of the needs of VAFF users near Asamayama, Kirishimayama, and Sakurajima volcanoes, and the organizations that cooperated in our trial distribution of VAFFs near Sakurajima volcano, including local governments and local media. We also thank two anonymous reviewers. Advice about improvements of the VAFF system from Dr. H. Yamasato, S. Harada, and other JMA staff members is much appreciated.
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