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Researchers unearth secrets of volcanic super-eruption

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Researchers at the Barcelona Supercomputing Center (BSC), and the Istituto Nazionale de Geofísica e Vulcanología (INGV) in Italy, have unearthed the secrets of the Campanian Ignimbrite super-eruption - which slowed the advance of Modern Humans in Europe - using simulations performed on the MareNostrum supercomputer.

The study, which is being published in Nature Scientific Reports, focuses on the Campanian Ignimbrite super-eruption, which took place some 39,000 years ago near the modern city of Naples. This example of a super eruption, which has been studied in this detail for the first time, provides a detailed reconstruction of this natural phenomenon which slowed the advance of Modern Humans across Europe.

The study was undertaken using hundreds of simulations on the MareNostrum supercomputer reconstructed the two stage phenomenon, which deposited a volume of ash equivalent to eight times the volume of Everest between southern Italy and the Siberian plains.

These simulations have allowed them to establish that in the first (Plinian) phase, the super-eruption generated a 44-kilometre high column and dispersed 54 km3 of deposits in the surrounding area, in what is now southern Italy. During the second (co-ignimbrite) phase, 154 km3 of finer particulate matter was dispersed. The total deposit accumulated over the two phases is approximately equivalent to eight times the visible part of Mount Everest.

In total, the super-eruption of the Campanian Ignimbrite covered an area of more than three million km2; from the Mediterranean to what is now Siberia, in ash. The largest build-ups of ash were in modern Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Romania, while in areas of the eastern Mediterranean layers up to 10cm thick accumulated.

Ash movements and deposits, along with the methodology used to undertake this study, can be found on the BSC website.

Another impact of the Campanian Ignimbrite eruption was that the release of ash and aerosols into the stratosphere caused a ‘volcanic winter’. Various studies have shown that this phenomenon caused global temperatures to drop by two degrees the following year, while the temperature in Western Europe dropped up by up to five degrees. 

In addition to the effects on the natural environment, the Campanian Ignimbrite eruption has been identified as having a significant impact on the evolution of the human species in Europe, as it took place when modern humans had begun to advance on the continent from the Middle East, displacing the Neanderthals. The super-eruption, together with the events of the last ice age, significantly reduced the habitable area in Europe and would have contributed to slowing the transition from the Middle Paleolithic to the Upper Paleolithic, delaying the entry of modern humans and reducing the population which had settled in the area devastated by its ash deposits.

In an ironic twist, these very same areas would become remarkably fertile farmlands for new settlers because of the ash deposits that once threatened human populations across Europe.

The study ‘Reconstructing the plinian and co-ignimbrite 1 sources of large volcanic eruptions:  A novel approach for the Campanian Ignimbrite’, published by Nature Scientific Reports, can be read for free online.

Barcelona Supercomputing Center (BSC) is home to the MareNostrum, the most powerful in Spain and one of seven supercomputers in the Spanish Supercomputing Network. The MareNostrum, which is comprised of 48,896 Intel Sandy bridge cores, is housed at the deconsecrated Chapel Torre Girona at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, Barcelona, Spain.