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In 1980 the Mt St. Helens volcano in Washington State erupted, sending 540 million tons of ash into the air. The ash caused billions of dollars’ worth of damage to the environment, agriculture, transportation and infrastructure. The ash darkened the sky and caused eye and respiratory irritation in humans and animals.
Mt. St. Helens is one of 600 volcanoes in the world, 40 of which are super volcanoes. The ash cloud emitted when one of these volcanoes erupts is called a “pyroclastic cloud.” It is violently pushed up into the air following the movement of lava down the sides of the mountain.
Damage to agriculture and the environment. The combination of darkened sky and thick ash accumulation from an eruption like Mt. St. Helens destroys crops in a wide area. The thick ash causes destruction of fish hatcheries and interruptions in the movement of fish in the rivers and lakes. The environment around the caldera after such eruptions has been likened to a moonscape (looking like the moon). Millions of board feet of timber can be destroyed, as well as all animal life in the area.
Damage to infrastructure. Volcanic ash falling from the sky onto towns and cities within several hundred miles of an eruption causes widespread infrastructure damage. Water treatment and sewage disposal systems become contaminated and the filtration equipment is clogged by the gritty ash, which is small enough to get into almost any opening. These systems have to be shut down until the completion of the difficult and expensive cleanup.
Damage to the population. Volcanic ash is easily inhaled and can cause respiratory compromise, skin and eye irritation and throat and nose irritation. Children, elders and people with asthma and other respiratory conditions are especially vulnerable to the effect of inhaling the ash. Anyone venturing out into heavy ash fall should wear goggles and masks of at least the N-95 level (fit-tested for each individual).
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Damage to transportation. Planes are at risk of stalling if they fly through a volcanic ash cloud. In 1989 a British airways jet almost crash-landed after flying through an ash cloud from the eruption of a volcano in Alaska. The plane stalled out in mid-air and for several minutes it careened towards the ground before the pilot regained control. In the interest of safety over a thousand flights were cancelled after the Mt. St. Helens eruption when airports were closed.
Ground transportation is also affected by ash accumulating in internal combustion and other mechanical and electrical equipment. The ash fall is often so thick that the reduction in visibility causes street and highway closures for days.
The effect of the ash fall from a volcano like Mt. St. Helens is widespread. The effect of the eruption of a super volcano like the one in Yellowstone would be 2,000 times greater. The sky would be blackened for years.
By MFSP Contributor
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