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Yellowstone Super Eruption Possible, Not Catastrophic

Sep 01, 2014 01:11 PM EDT

A volcanic supereruption at Yellowstone National Park, while unlikely, is possible within the next few centuries. And though it may sound bad, the aftermath would not be catastrophic, according to a new study.

Advanced computer modeling finds that a hypothetical, large eruption would blanket the northern Rocky Mountains in meters of ash, and millimeters would be deposited as far away as New York City, Los Angeles and Miami.

Yellowstone National Park, located in Montana and Wyoming, sits atop a vast reserve of molten rock believed to be dormant for over 70,000 years. Rumors have been circulating that a super eruption can occur soon, but researchers at the US Geological Survey (USGS) reveal that an eruption is possible - at least within a few more centuries.

Scientists estimate that the supereruption would create a massive cloud known as an umbrella, sending ash across North America. A cloud of this magnitude - the largest class of volcanic eruption - could shut down electronic communications and air travel throughout the continent, as well as alter the climate, according to the study.

Using a so-called Ash3D model, USGS researchers determined that cities within 300 miles of Yellowstone National Park may get covered in up to three feet as ash. Areas beyond 300 miles from the eruption may experiences a few inches of ash while cities as far as New York may be sprinkled with just less than an inch of ash.

The research team also explains that, coinciding with the umbrella cloud, ash deposits will be heavier in the center and diminishing in all directions, and less affected by prevailing winds, according to the model.

"In essence, the eruption makes its own winds that can overcome the prevailing westerlies, which normally dominate weather patterns in the United States," lead author Larry Mastin, a geologist at the USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory in Washington, 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," he added.

While a supereruption hasn't occurred at Yellowstone since 640,000 years ago, in the event that one happens again in the next few centuries, sleep soundly knowing that the effects would not be catastrophic. The worst you can expect is reduced traction on roads, shorted-out electrical transformers and respiratory problems, as well as damage to buildings, blocked sewer and water lines, and disruption of livestock and crop production.

The study findings were published in the journal Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems.

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