NASA Will Prevent a Volcanic Eruption in Yellowstone by Draining its Heat

Weird Science
Sunday, 20 August 2017 - 6:18PM

Of all the imminent dangers around the world right now, one slightly less imminent danger that tends to get forgotten is the giant magma chamber beneath Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, which would become a "supervolcano" were it ever to erupt. Not to scare you, of course.

But if it were to erupt, most predictions agree that it would create a 25 mile-wide crater in the American Midwest and fire enough ash into the sky to blot out the sun for several years. While this situation is a bit more grounded than NASA's normal beat, they're attempting to deal with the situation after deciding a supervolcanic eruption is a more pressing threat to the Earth than rogue asteroids hitting us.

Brian Wilcox from Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology spoke to the BBC and made the following, grave prediction about Yellowstone:

"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."

NASA's proposal involves exploiting a weakness already found in Yellowstone: potential volcanoes can spend ages building up heat until the pressure is enough to cause an eruption, but Yellowstone's process is slowed down because it releases some of that heat out into the surrounding geysers and hot springs. This can cool it down slightly, but it doesn't happen fast enough to even things out.

What NASA would do is drill a hole into the volcano's side, and pump water through it in an attempt to speed up this "bleeding out" of the volcano's heat. Having absorbed some heat, he superheated water would be pumped back out, and Wilcox suspects this should 1) cool down Yellowstone enough to prevent an eruption, and 2) provide enough power to start a geothermal plant. That last part is mostly there to bring in government funding, since you can't trust "saving lives from a volcano" to be enough. 

The only issue with this plan is that there's some room for error. Wilcox explains that if done improperly, they might speed things up by accident:

"The most important thing with this is to do no harm. 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."

Still, anything is better than nothing right now. Since its formation 2.1 million years ago, Yellowstone has erupted three times at intervals of around 600,000 years, with its last eruption being 630,000 years ago.

So yes, it is something we should be looking into soon, although current measurements don't suggest it's about to go critical.