How the mega-drought exposed the dangers of distant volcanoes

Visitors to the Las Vegas Valley know that the only nearby volcano is at The Mirage hotel, so why did University of Nevada researchers recently find volcanic ash in Lake Mead? The ongoing drought has caused record water levels in the country’s largest reservoir, which has uncovered rocks encrusted with volcanic ash from distant volcanoes.

“For the western United States, there have been two major eruptions in the past million years, just yesterday for geologists, which deposited ash over most of western North America,” said volcanologist Eugene Smith. “If another eruption of this magnitude were to happen again, most of the western United States would be affected.”

Smith pointed to eruptions in Yellowstone and the Sierras in central California as potential sources, if the events were large-scale.

“Although the Las Vegas Valley is currently far removed from any active volcanoes, we can and will bring ash from these volcanoes onto southern Nevada in the future,” Smith said in a press release. “Even a few millimeters of ash, when wet, is incredibly heavy and can destroy power and telecommunications lines. It can block roads. It is easily remobilized by wind and water. When inhaled, the incredibly tiny but sharp glass grains in the ash can cause significant chronic lung conditions such as silicosis.”

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Smith thinks even small amounts of ash can threaten air travel and would likely shut down airports. Cars and trucks can even come to a standstill, causing transport to stop.

Smith is the author of a study with geologist Racheal Johnson and describes the dangers of volcanoes even for remote cities. They tested ash that hasn’t seen the sun since 1935, when the government built the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River and flooded the reservoir.

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Smith said current volcanic emergency planning revolves around areas in close proximity to a volcano and the path of lava. He hopes local government officials will develop an action plan similar to plans dealing with floods, earthquakes and tsunamis.

“It’s important for metropolitan areas like Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and Phoenix to realize that volcanic hazard may be more related to distant volcanoes than local volcanic eruptions,” Smith said. “Just because there aren’t local volcanoes with high eruption potential doesn’t mean there isn’t volcanic danger.”

Experts said communities along the Cascade Range should also be well prepared for an eruption.

Smith refers to the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980. He called it a geologically small eruption. Even so, it produced an ash cloud that traveled to the Great Lakes. Idaho and Montana suffered from infrastructure problems with Washington.

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Without a mega-drought, the discoveries probably wouldn’t have happened

The volcanic material is the latest in a long list of discoveries made due to lower water levels in Lake Mead during the Western Megadrought.

Police added evidence to a cold case when someone found a barrel containing a murdered corpse that the perpetrator said would lie hidden beneath the waves for eternity. The shrinking lake is also an obstacle course for boaters, as boats from the underwater graveyard now dominate the surface.

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This year Lake Mead has reached record highs over the summer and is only a few feet higher right now. According to the Bureau of Reclamation, it sits 184 feet below the full pool, which is only a quarter of its capacity.

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