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Yellowstone supervolcano eruption would be disastrous for entire US – study

Published time: September 02, 2014 23:37
The Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest in the United States and third largest in the world, is seen in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. (Reuters / Jim Urquhart)

The Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest in the United States and third largest in the world, is seen in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. (Reuters / Jim Urquhart)

If the massive supervolcano at Yellowstone National Park erupted again, scientists believe it would blanket much of the United States in ash and potentially sever communication as well as travel between the country’s coasts.

According to a new study published by the US Geological Survey, cities about 300 miles away from the volcano’s location in Wyoming would be covered in up to three feet of ash as a result of a supereruption, the largest kind of volcanic eruption possible. More than 240 cubic miles of material would be expelled into the atmosphere, reaching cities like New York and Los Angeles on both sides of the United States.

In fact, the resulting ash cloud, or “umbrella,” as scientists called it, would be so strong that it would overpower normal wind patterns in North America, potentially grounding all air travel throughout the entire continent and radically altering the region’s climate. Electronic communication between the US’ East and West Coasts could also become complicated, if not hopeless.

“In essence, the eruption makes its own winds that can overcome the prevailing westerlies, which normally dominate weather patterns in the United States,” geologist and lead author of the study Larry Mastin said in a press release. “This helps explain the distribution from large Yellowstone eruptions of the past, where considerable amounts of ash reached the West Coast.”

In addition to taking out air travel, even just a couple of centimeters of ash accumulation would make driving accidents far more likely, due to reduced traction on roads. People would likely suffer from ash-related respiratory problems, while several inches of ash could damage buildings and jam water and sewage systems.

View of the 'Sunset Lake' hot spring with it's unique colors caused by brown, orange and yellow algae-like bacteria called Thermophiles, that thrive in the cooling water turning the vivid aqua-blues to a murkier greenish brown, in the Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. (AFP Photo / Mark Ralston)

Although the consequences of such a powerful eruption are obviously serious, geologists still believe another explosion is unlikely at this point. The Yellowstone supervolcano has generated this kind of eruption at least three times in its history: once 2.1 million years ago, another 1.3 million years ago, and a third time about 640,000 years ago

With millions of tons of lava located underneath the supervolcano – last year the reservoir was found to be 2.5 times larger than previously thought – a supereruption would likely affect the entire world, not just the US or North America.

"It would be a global event," Jamie Farrell of the University of Utah told the Associated Press last year. "There would be a lot of destruction and a lot of impacts around the globe."

Fears over a possible eruption have spiked occasionally over the last few months, with a 4.8-magnitude earthquake striking the Yellowstone park earlier this year causing some to speculate that volcanic activity was to blame. As RT reported in July, one of the park’s major roads melted this summer as a result of extreme heat from the supervolcano.

Still, geologists say the chances of an eruption are unlikely.

There is no evidence that a catastrophic eruption at Yellowstone National Park (YNP) is imminent,” the University of Utah Seismograph Station said in April. “Current geologic activity at Yellowstone has remained relatively constant since earth scientists first started monitoring some 30 years ago. Though another caldera-forming eruption is theoretically possible, it is very unlikely to occur in the next thousand or even 10,000 years.”

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