Lurking below the idyllic scenery of Yellowstone National Park is a super-volcano that scientists fear could one day result in an explosion that would threaten much of America and life on Earth.
Although by the super-volcano’s geological clock, it ought to be thousands of years from erupting, recent activity at the site has stirred fears that the event experts dread might come sooner. If that happens, much of America would be buried under ash and lava.
But the same people who have been planing to defend the planet against asteroids also have a plan to fight the super-volcano.
“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 NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, according to the BBC. “I came to the conclusion during that study that the supervolcano threat is substantially greater than the asteroid or comet threat.”
“When people first considered the idea of defending the Earth from an asteroid impact, they reacted in a similar way to the super-volcano threat,” Wilcox said. “People thought, ‘As puny as we are, how can humans possibly prevent an asteroid from hitting the Earth.’”
NASA’s answer is a version of the big freeze. If molten rock is cooled, it won’t flow to the surface. But a big volcano is going to need more than a couple of ice cubes. The JPL team estimates that stopping an eruption would require the temperature to be reduced by 35 percent.
To do that, scientists said they will drill a vent hole. It can’t go too deep, because then it would let the molten rock stream to the surface.
Instead, NASA wants to used the water below Yellowstone that is the source of its famous geysers. It proposes drilling a 10 km-deep hole and dumping cooler water into the heated water that already exists. Cooling the water would cool the temperature of the rock next to it, meaning that molten rock could then become solid and stay below ground where it belongs.
The concept is not cheap. The current price tag is almost $3.5 billion, according to NBC News.
However, Wilcox said that in the process of cooling the water, the super heated water that exists can be circulated through a system to create energy.
“Yellowstone currently leaks around 6GW (gigawatts) in heat,” Wilcox said. “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.”
Dr. Charles Connor, a volcanologist at the University of South Florida in Tampa, said the NASA project might be “pie in the sky,” but if humanity wants to try to stave off disaster form predictable geological events, it has to try something.
“These are geological events which are beyond our experience, and humanity’s not prepared to deal with them,” he said. “Honestly, in the case of a super-eruption what else would we do? We have to try geoengineering.”