Young volcanoes could pose risk to electrical grids

Smoke pours from erupting volcano (young volcanoes)
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Researchers say new young volcanoes could emerge in the southwestern United States and potentially cause serious damage to electrical grids if they erupt.

These eruptions could happen at any time, according to research published in Geosphere.

Approximately 1,800 volcanoes have covered areas around Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, and California over the past 2.58 million years. Some of these volcanoes emerged as recently as 1,000 years ago, and are known are “monogenetic” or “one life”.

“A monogenetic volcano will erupt once, and that eruption may last several days to several decades, but after that, the volcano is basically dead,” volcanologist Greg Valentine explained.

Valentine said the scientific community was becoming more interested in the dangers monogenetic volcanoes pose.

“Most people are surprised to know that there are so many young volcanoes in the Southwest,” he said.

Valentine and his colleagues published research that said while the volcanoes might not be immediately dangerous, they could possibly reveal the potential for new eruptions. 

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“In the United States, most volcanic hazards-related attention has rightly gone to places like Hawaii, and to the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, where we have big stratovolcanoes like Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens, which will have many eruptive episodes over a long life, with widespread hazardous effects. In the past, these smaller monogenetic volcanoes really haven’t been looked at from a focus on hazards; they have been instead studied mainly for what they tell us about the deep earth. Recently, however, there has been more buzz in the research community about how we need to take a look at the kinds of hazards these volcanoes might pose.

“Monogenetic volcanoes tend to occur in areas that we call volcanic fields, and the American Southwest is just dotted with these,” he said, adding there was no way to tell when or where these future eruptions might occur.

While most of the volcanoes in the Southwest were far from metropolitan areas, eruptions could affect air traffic or electrical grids. However, the chances of a new eruption happening within the next 100 years were about eight per cent, according to Northern Arizona University professor emeritus of geology Michael H. Ort.

“One of the younger eruptions in the Southwest occurred south of Grants, New Mexico, a few thousand years ago, and flowed for many miles parallel to what is now Interstate 40 and part of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad,” Ort said.

“A similar eruption today would take out one of the most important east-west transportation routes in the country. Several volcanic fields lie along these routes, from the Mojave Desert of California to eastern New Mexico, including the one around Flagstaff.”

“When you look at the region from the perspective of volcanic hazards, we really have very little information,” Valentine said. 

“Very few have been studied in detail.”