Yellowstone Supervolcano Eruption Would be Devastating For U.S.

Sep 01, 2014 08:00 AM EDT | Matt Mercuro

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If the Yellowstone supervolcano erupted, at least a meter of ash would cover parts of the Rocky Mountain range and a few millimeters of ash would reach cities on both coasts of the U.S., according to new estimates based on computer simulations on the event,

There have been no supereruptions in recorded history, and one is unlikely to happen anytime soon, but if one did happen it would size up with an explosion spewed by the Yellowstone supervolcano, according to the simulation on a Yellowstone eruption and the model's accompanying study.

Even eruptions by Chile's Quizapu volcano and the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes in Alaska are magnitudes below a potential Yellow stone event.

The Ash3D model simulated Yellowstone's eruption and the study, "Modeling Ash Fall Distribution From a Yellowstone Supereruption," was published in the Wiley Online Library.

Larry Mastin, lead author of the study and US Geological Survey hydrologist, said he helped develop the Ash3D model, said that there has been a recent rise in demand for models projecting the density of the ash driven by a ground-collapsing eruption from the Yellowstone volcano.

"It's a crazy thing to think about because none of us have ever seen an eruption like Yellowstone," said Mastin, according to the Independent Record. "It would be two or three orders of magnitude more ash than we've been able to observe."

Yellowstone's most recent eruption took place around 640,000 years ago. Despite taking place in 600,000 to 800,000 intervals, geologists have said that there's no evidence the supervolcano is preparing for another explosion.

Once they simulated a modern-day Yellowstone eruption, researchers were able to determine that a Yellowstone caldera eruption would release an "umbrella" of ash that would spread from the center of the US and cover both coasts.

"In essence, the eruption makes its own winds that can overcome the prevailing westerlies, which normally dominate weather patterns in the United States," said Mastin. "This helps explain the distribution from large Yellowstone eruptions of the past, where considerable amounts of ash reached the west coast."

The effects of the supervolcano's ash cloud would have a significant impact on every part of the U.S. The whole continent would suffer drastic change, according to Mastin.

"Electronic communications and air transportation would likely be shut down throughout North America," said the study. "There would also be major climate effects. Emission of sulfur aerosols during the 1991 Pinatubo eruption produced global cooling by an average of 1 degrees Celsius for a few years, while the 50 km 3 Tambora eruption of 1815 cooled the planet enough to produce the famed 'year without a summer' in 1816, during which snow fell in June in eastern North America and crop failures led to the worst famine of the 19th century."

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