The human race might be in danger. A huge magma chamber rests beneath the Yellowstone National Park. If the Yellowstone volcano erupts, this could lead to a long winter that would eventually cause starvation. Nasa scientists are already aware of this threat and they came up with a plan to stop it. Nevertheless, people are still sceptical.
“When people first considered the idea of defending the Earth from an asteroid impact, they reacted in a similar way to the supervolcano threat. People thought, ‘As puny as we are, how can humans possibly prevent an asteroid from hitting the Earth.’ Well, it turns out if you engineer something which pushes very slightly for a very long time, you can make the asteroid miss the Earth. So the problem turns out to be easier than people think. In both cases it requires the scientific community to invest brain power and you have to start early. But Yellowstone explodes roughly every 600,000 years, and it is about 600,000 years since it last exploded, which should cause us to sit up and take notice,” Brian Wilcox of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at the California Institute of Technology declared.
An imminent threat
The Yellowstone volcano is already leaking about 60-70% of the heat in the atmosphere, but the rest of the heat builds up inside the magma. If this continues, an eruption might occur. “I was a member of the Nasa Advisory Council on Planetary Defense which studied ways for Nasa to defend the planet from asteroids and comets. I came to the conclusion during that study that the supervolcano threat is substantially greater than the asteroid or comet threat,” Wilcox added.
Nasa came up with a plan
Right now, the only way to stop the volcano would be by extracting more heat. The scientists believe that this can be done by drilling 10 km down into the volcano and then pump down water at high pressure.
“Yellowstone currently leaks around 6GW in heat. 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. You would have to give the geothermal companies incentives to drill somewhat deeper and use hotter water than they usually would, but you would pay back your initial investment, and get electricity which can power the surrounding area for a period of potentially tens of thousands of years. And the long-term benefit is that you prevent a future supervolcano eruption which would devastate humanity,” Wilcox explained.
This would be the best solution because it the most efficient one. However, there are certain risks. “The most important thing with this is to do no harm,” Wilcox says. “If you drill into the top of the magma chamber and try and cool it from there, this would be very risky. This could make the cap over the magma chamber more brittle and prone to fracture. And you might trigger the release of harmful volatile gases in the magma at the top of the chamber which would otherwise not be released.”
Another alternative would be to increase the amount of water in the volcano, but this is not a viable option. ““Building a big aqueduct uphill into a mountainous region would be both costly and difficult, and people don’t want their water spent that way,” Wilcox says. “People are desperate for water all over the world and so a major infrastructure project, where the only way the water is used is to cool down a supervolcano, would be very controversial.”