Scientists have begun investigating the possible environmental effects if the supervolcano at Yellowstone National Park suddenly erupted.

Earth specialists at the United States Geological Survey (USGS) stated that while there is a "very low" chance that the supervolcano would erupt, they have generated a computer model to simulate the possible volcanic ash fall in case a massive magma explosion does happen at Yellowstone.

The supervolcano was found after a team of researchers confirmed the existence of a large reservoir of magma buried deep beneath the national park. It is believed that this magma deposit is even more immense than the one that caused Yellowstone's caldera to erupt approximately 640,000 years ago.

The USGS study simulated different scenarios if the supervolcano were to erupt for three days, a week and even an entire month. All three possibilities yielded volcanic ash of up to 330 kilometers (205 miles) in range. The results also indicated that the formation of the umbrella cloud after the explosion could push the ash to a distance of about 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) away.

According to researchers, a large volcanic eruption and its subsequent umbrella cloud would result in an expansive ash distribution capable of covering most of the United States.

"In essence, the eruption makes its own winds that can overcome the prevailing westerlies that normally dominate weather patterns in the United States," Larry Mastin, a USGS geologist and the first author of the study, said.

Regarding the lasting effects of a supervolcanic eruption, Mastin and his colleagues explained in the study that a massive explosion could cover North America's highly populated coastlines with ash fall of up to a few centimeters in thickness.

Despite its seemingly small magnitude, the scientists said that even a few millimeters of ash can significantly reduce traction on roads and airport runways and also short circuit electrical transformers. The pyroclastic material could also cause breathing problems in people.

A few centimeters of ash could also affect people's crops and livestock in Midwest America.

Martin and his team warned about the possible effects of thick ash deposits on the structural integrity of buildings and how these materials could disrupt water and sewer lines in populated areas. The ash fall could also greatly affect communications systems and air transportation for most of North America.

The researchers fear the explosion of volcanic ash in the atmosphere could affect the country's climate as well.

As of the moment, there are no signs that the supervolcano in Yellowstone would erupt in the near future, according to the USGS team.

"Over the past two million years, trends in the volume of eruptions and the magnitude of crustal melting may signal a decline of major volcanism from the Yellowstone region," the researchers said.

"These factors, plus the 3-in-2.1-million annual frequency of past events, suggest a confidence of at least 99.9 percent that 21st-century society will not experience a Yellowstone supereruption."

Despite this, the USGS team recommends further studies be made to better understand the likely effects of a supereruption. They hope that their research influences others to look into how ash is transported during such eruptions.

They also pointed out that in case the Yellowstone supervolcano does erupt, it would "almost certainly" not be as massive as the one simulated in their study.

The USGS study is published in the journal Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems.

Photo: Peter Hartree | Flickr 

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