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Lake Mead’s water crisis is caused by volcanic rock that erupted 12 million years ago

In recent months, Lake Mead’s declining water level has revealed many shocking facts. These include sunken ships, warships, and human remains. Scientists have discovered Lake Mead’s dry beds: rocks laced in volcanic ash from southern Nevada’s explosive eruptions 12 million years ago.

Record-breaking water levels have exposed sedimentary rocks not seen since the 1930s when Lake Mead was filled and the Hoover Dam was constructed. Researchers at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, discovered ash deposits that were formed by volcanoes in Idaho and Wyoming.

Eugene Smith, a UNLV emeritus professor in geology and coauthor of the study, stated that although we knew about these ash units, it was surprising to discover so many of them as Lake Mead’s water level dropped.

Lake Mead’s levels have fallen to new lows due to drought in the West and excessive use of Colorado River water. The lake’s water level in September was 1,045 feet above sea level, which is around 27% less than its full capacity.

Scientists are using the low levels of sediment to study sediment that hasn’t been exposed for nearly a century.

Smith’s research team discovered white to gray volcanic ash weaving through the previously submerged rocks. To pinpoint the source of the ash they took samples back to the lab, but it was not from one eruption.

Evidence of volcanic explosions was found in places such as the Snake River Plain Yellowstone area, which is a region of active volcanoes that runs across Idaho and the Snake River to Yellowstone National Park. It also reveals evidence of eruptions many millions of years ago. They also discovered ash from volcanic eruptions that occurred only 32,000 years ago, which is not a very long time in geological terms.

Jake Lowenstern is a US Geological Survey research geologist who was not involved in the study. He said that studying past volcanic eruptions can help to paint a picture of future risk.

Lowenstern stated that the latest discovery at Lake Mead could be the best collection of volcanic ash from that period. It will allow Lowenstern to “be important in reconstructing the geologic history and understanding the frequency and impact of large volcanic eruptions on the Southwest.”

Even moderately explosive volcanic eruptions can send ash hundreds of miles and blanket areas several kilometers away with heavy material. Recent studies have shown that a few millimeters of dampened ash can interrupt electricity transmission. Inhaled ash grains can pose a serious health risk.

Smith stated that ashfall events could disrupt transport and supply networks, shut down airports, and pose a potential health hazard. “Local governments should have plans in place to handle this type of event, just as they did for flooding and earthquakes.”

Smith stated that their most recent analysis could help society prepare for future volcanic events, even from faraway volcanoes.

Smith stated that “Studying past events is key to understanding the future.” Understanding past volcanic events will help us understand how future events may impact large metropolitan areas. It is possible to develop plans for dealing with volcanic eruptions that may occur in the future.

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