NASA Has A $3.5bn Plan For Yellowstone That Might Save Us All One Day
As pretty as Yellowstone may be, it holds a terrifying secret underneath those amazing geysers it constantly brags with. And that secret is a volcano. But the Yellowstone Park volcano is not like most of the others we’re familiar with, either directly or through the news and movies. The Yellowstone volcano is, in fact, a supervolcano.
To date, we are aware of 20 such supervolcanoes, scattered all across the face of the Earth. And unlike conventional volcanoes, even larger ones, supervolcanoes have the capacity to flung the entire planet into disarray. For instance, the largest mass extinction in Earth’s history, which happened more than 200 million years ago, took place because one such supervolcano in Siberia. One similar supervolcano that you may have heard about recently is in Italy, underneath Naples. No, not Vesuvius, but underneath the entire Gulf of Naples. In fact, that gulf is actually that volcano’s caldera.
And similar to Campi Flegrei, as that particular volcano is called in Italy, Yellowstone Park is also the actual caldera for this particular supervolcano. The good news here is that these volcanoes usually erupt once every 100 thousand to 1 million years, and there’s a minute chance that anyone reading this would have to experience such an apocalyptic event. According to the evidence, Yellowstone seems to erupt once every 600,000 years, more or less. The bad new here is that those 600 thousand years seem to come to an end and Yellowstone may be beginning to wake up once again. Now, when an event such as this one takes places, 1000 or even 5000 years, give or take, is a ‘geological instant.’
Nevertheless, there is no sure way of predicting one such event with great accuracy and by the time we realize that one such eruption is on its way, it may be too late. This is why NASA has come up with a plan.
“I was a member of the NASA Advisory Council on Planetary Defence which studied ways for NASA to defend the planet from asteroids and comets,” researcher Brian Wilcox from the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory told the BBC.
“I came to the conclusion during that study that the supervolcano threat is substantially greater than the asteroid or comet threat.”
So, the plan that they’ve devised is to basically cool the volcano by drilling a hole, roughly 6 miles deep and then begin pouring in water inside. As it turns out Yellowstone already vents about 60 to 70 percent of its heat through the many geysers and hot springs, while the remaining 40 percent slowly builds up underneath the surface.
If we were to tap into that heat and reduce it to just 5%, then the supervolcano may never erupt again. What’s more that heated water that would return back to the surface could be used in a geothermal plant that could power the region for thousands of years to come.
“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,” Wilcox explained to the BBC.
“[You would] 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.”
The biggest problem, though, and one that people should be extremely careful about, is not the cost of about $3.5 billion, but how and where that hole should be drilled. If it happens right on top, then there’s a good chance the entire crust could fracture – which would maybe kick start the whole process into high gear.
“If you drill into the top of the magma chamber and try and cool it from there, this would be very risky,” Wilcox said.
“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.”
These plans are still a long way away from materializing. But by talking about it, Wilcox hopes that one day, a solution would be found.