WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
- One day a Supervolcano like Yellowstone will erupt, plunge the Earth into the next ice age and potentially wipe out much of life on Earth, but now NASA has a plan to stop it
Nature is as awesome as it is destructive, and it’s one of the very few forces that today, even with all our technology and toys, knows how to put us in our place, but increasingly as humanity’s understanding of these phenomenal forces, and as the power of our technology, increases we are increasingly redressing the balance.
Earth destroying asteroid? Mined, nuked and turned into spacecraft. Catastrophic tidal wave? Obliterated with sound. Melting Arctic ice shelves and associated sea level rises? Re-frozen and halted. Continental wide desertification? Let it rain.
Great, humanity is saved once again. But wait, a supervolcano eruption could plunge the Earth back into an ice age and wipe out over 90 percent of the species on the planet. So could we stop that from happening? Well now the answer, increasingly, looks like it could be a yes, and it’s thanks to those industrious, boundary pushing busy bodies at NASA.
Yellowstone National Park is famous for its hot springs, geysers, and sumptuous scenery, but as beautiful as all of this is, it’s only made possible because of the terrifying supervolcano that’s lurking under the surface, and an eruption in Yellowstone could be a global cataclysm.
Now though NASA has a plan to reduce the risk while also generating Geothermal Energy, but as you’d expect it’s not without its risks, and the price tag, at $3.5 Billion, is phenomenal. Still, if it keeps us from being wiped out by clouds of hot ash, it might be something to consider.
Yellowstone hasn’t erupted in over 630,000 years, and there’s no accurate way to predict when it will happen again, although Artificial Intelligence is having a go – it could be tomorrow, or it could take another million years. But it will happen, at least, that is if we can’t figure out a way to stop it first.
NASA’s plan involves drilling deep holes into the supervolcano’s caldera from sites outside of Yellowstone and gaining access to the magma pocket that powers it, and that’s the dangerous part, because if it isn’t successful it could trigger, not prevent, an eruption, and while a full eruption of Yellowstone wouldn’t kill that many people, it’d create a 500 mile wide ash fall that would cover the US West and Midwest in over four inches of ash. Crops would be destroyed, and rich agricultural land would be turned into barren wastelands overnight. Just think of that – no food, and no solar energy to power your Tesla’s. Seriously, what would you do if you couldn’t drive your Tesla!? Panic!
While digging the holes would be a big challenge in the first place there are several precedents – firstly there’s Japan’s recent effort to become the first country to drill through the Earth’s Mantle, and then there’s Iceland’s Iceland Deep Drilling Project (IDDP) which will drill a 3.1mile deep hole to tap into new deep underground geothermal energy sources that, it’s estimated, could provide enough energy to power the entire US, once it’s transmitted via an “Energy Supergrid,” for decades to come.
“Yellowstone currently leaks around 6GW in heat,” said Brian Wilcox, a researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), “through drilling in this way, it could be used to create a geothermal plant, which generates electric power at extremely competitive prices of around $0.10/kWh.”
Putting that into perspective that would make it one of the cheapest sources of energy anywhere – another kick in the teeth for the fossil fuel economy.
NASA’s plan calls for water to be piped through the supervolcano, which would emerge as super-heated steam at around 662 degrees Fahrenheit (350 degrees Celsius), that could be used to generate power, but that’s not all. As the new system sucks heat from the magma chamber it would also begin cooling it and over time that would lower the risk of an eruption. NASA estimates that the system would cost about $3.5billion to set up.
According to sources NASA’s only considering this ambitious plan because of the extreme threat a supervolcano like Yellowstone presents. The Yellowstone Caldera has erupted three times in the past, and each of them has been orders of magnitude larger than the volcanic eruptions we’re used to seeing today.
There have been three eruptions in Yellowstone, the first of which occurred about 2.1 million years ago that spread ash across much of North America and left a 50 mile wide crater in Yellowstone, which is now known as the Island Park Caldera, and supervolcanoes like Yellowstone can pump many cubic miles of ash into the atmosphere, which would alter the global climate for a decade or more. While these types of eruptions are extremely rare the Yellowstone Lava Creek eruption which took place around 630,000 years ago rated a VEI (Volcano Explosivity Index) score of 8 out of 10, and covered a huge swathe of the US.
To put this in further perspective the eruption of Krakatoa, which destroyed an entire island, ranked as a VEI 6 event. The most powerful eruption in the past 200 years was Mt. Tambora in 1815 and that kicked off the “Year Without a Summer,” where famine and wild temperature fluctuations occurred worldwide, and that eruption threw out “just” 120 cubic kilometers of material. Putting this into perspective the past Yellowstone eruptions kicked out ten times as much.
While the more recent Yellowstone eruptions haven’t been quite as large as the first, any eruption in Yellowstone has the potential to cause widespread destruction, so working on ways to mitigate the danger is a good idea, even if it is expensive, and lest we forget there are at least twenty other supervolcano’s just waiting to erupt.
That said though it would probably take many years to know whether NASA’s plan was successful at slowing the build up of pressure, or even reversing it, and even still, in the best case scenario it would take thousands of years to cool the caldera completely. However, that’s thousands of years Yellowstone could power a large chunk of the US, and what would you prefer – cheaper electricity or a global extinction event?
I know which one I’d prefer, now it’s time to go for a spin in my Tesla.