NASA prepares for supervolcano eruption with this costly plan.
An unreleased report from NASA that has been shared with media outlets this week indicates that the space agency intends to turn their attention towards Earth’s surface in an effort to save humans all over the world. Though they typically focus on the ever-expanding universe and all the complex worlds inside of it, the agency saw an expanding threat here on Earth that needed addressing.
NASA tasked the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) with developing a plan to prevent the eruption of Yellowstone National Park’s supervolcano after the group determined that the volcano was a pressing issue that needed to be dealt with.
“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,” said Brian Wilcox of JPL at the California Institute of Technology. “I came to the conclusion during that study that the supervolcano threat is substantially greater than the asteroid or comet threat.”
Yellowstone National Park is located in the United States and it’s one of 20 supervolcanos around the world that poses the risk of erupting; major eruptions occur about every 100,00 years. If it were to erupt, it could cause a collapse in agriculture, economic systems, food availability, and deaths in the millions, all of which would impact the entire world.
The biggest threat would be starvation, as the U.S. is a major food producer whose terrain and environment would be destroyed by an eruption and the volcanic winter would spread across the planet and prevent other countries from properly growing crops. The last volcanic winter, which occurred some 75,000 years ago after a much smaller volcanic erupted, lasted about a decade and was followed by a cool climate. According to the UN, the planet could be fed for only 74 days following a global catastrophe based on food reserves.
All of these reasons have led NASA to a develop a plan that would cost $3.5 billion and take many years in order to prevent the supervolcano from erupting at all. Supervolcanos consist of collapsed crust that house hot magma spanning hundreds or thousands of square miles. They erupt once the magma below heats to a certain temperature, and there are really only two plausible ways that humans can prevent the magma from heating up too much. One method the agency considered was adding a constant flow of water to the magma chamber by causing the chamber to release 35% more heat than it already does. From a practical perspective, this plan would never work.
“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 said. “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.”
Instead, NASA turned to another plan that involves drilling into the magma chamber to force it to release more heat, then pumping water in and out to bring out even more heat. Since drilling from the top of the chamber poses a serious risk of causing an eruption, the scientists plan to drill into the lower sides in order to accomplish this goal. Although it’s a costly plan, NASA says that this project could potentially be a huge investment for clean energy companies.
“Yellowstone currently leaks around 6GW in heat,” Wilcox explained. “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.”
Of course, at this point the plan is only a proposal and would take a very long time to complete. Cooling down Yellowstone’s supervolcano using this method would occur at a slow rate of 1 meter per year, meaning no one that developed this plan would live to see the results. Whether or not it worked can’t be determined for hundreds of thousands of years, because at that point the supervolcano should have erupted or not. Ultimately, NASA developed this plan as a blueprint for other countries to also consider for their supervolcanos in an effort to stave off a domestic threat that could impact the entire world.