Now that the total eclipse has come and gone, we can go back to worrying about things that can really harm us without staring directly at them -- like mosquitoes, junk food and the Yellowstone supervolcano. In a surprising twist, NASA – the folks who spend their time looking up (and telling us not to look directly at the eclipse) -- have actually been looking down at the supervolcano that erupts every 600,000 years and hasn’t erupted in … wait for it … 600,000 years. An eruption could blow a big hole in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, kill millions of people and trigger a global winter. Fortunately, NASA engineers have come up with a plan to cool it down and delay, or even stop, the next eruption. However, volcano experts say this plan could also blow a big hole in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, kill millions of people and trigger a global winter. Should NASA go back to planning a trip to Mars?
The warning about the volcano, the news of the plan and the warning about the plan all come from the same person – Brian Wilcox, a scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a former member of NASA’s Advisory Council on Planetary Defense, the group watching for incoming Near Earth Objects and developing plans to destroy or deflect any big ones heading for a direct impact. While looking at the odds, Wilcox says, “I came to the conclusion during that study that the supervolcano threat is substantially greater than the asteroid or comet threat.”
One of the 20 known supervolcanos is Yellowstone and the area has been experiencing a high number of minor earthquakes this summer (1,500) that experts are saying we shouldn’t be concerned about, even though the ground is becoming deformed. Meanwhile, Wilcox reveals that, behind the scenes, NASA is worried about the supervolcano and has been developing a plan to drill a hole into the side of it and pump water past the hot magma, drawing off its heat and bringing it back to the surface. The volcano would cool down and the hot water could be used as a source of geothermal energy for the western states. What could possibly go wrong?
Plenty, warns the same David Wilcox in a recent interview with the BBC.
“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.”
So, this plan to save us from Yellowstone could fracture the cap over the magma chamber currently preventing an eruption, or release volatile gases from between the magma and the cap that could also cause an eruption or some dangerous gas explosion.
Are there any alternatives besides moving to Canada (which may not be to open to Americans theses days)? Wilcox recommends a similar but gradual method – drilling much farther away from the magma and cooling it more slowly – a process that could take tens of thousands of years.
That sounds almost like doing nothing. The plan that could potentially create geothermal energy at the expense of sucking up the nation’s water supply and potentially triggering the volcano still looks better to politicians in charge of protecting us from disasters, even though they haven’t been doing to well at this lately.
Should we let them decide on this one? What could possibly go wrong?