NASA builds plan to turn Yellowstone’s magma into megawatts

By Sebastian Moronta Blanco, Staff Writer

One of the gravest threats to human civilization won’t come from the sky, but instead from right underneath our feet.

That’s what Brian Wilcox, an aerospace engineer in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, found in a recent study on ways of defending Earth from asteroids and comets. Wilcox told the BBC, “I came to the conclusion that the supervolcano threat is substantially greater than the asteroid or comet threat.”

There are about 20 known supervolcanoes, one of which sits underneath Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone is estimated to erupt every 600,000 to 800,000 years, and hasn’t erupted in nearly 640,000 years. The last time it did, a blanket of ash stretched from present-day California to Minnesota, and the land was devastated for hundreds of miles.

NASA developed a plan to neutralize the threat of eruptions by cooling the volcanoes over time. Scientists could achieve this by drilling about six miles deep into the volcano and releasing water at high pressure, slowly extracting heat. This project would be extremely lengthy and risky, and cost an estimated $3.46bn, although it does come with an immediate benefit.

According to Wilcox, Yellowstone currently leaks around 6GW (gigawatts) in heat.

The proposed plan would create a geothermal plant on the supervolcano which would use this heat to generate electric power at an extremely low cost, powering 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 likelihood that a supervolcano like Yellowstone will erupt in a given year is small, about 1 in 730,000. Scientists at the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory (YVO) monitor the volcano closely and geological activity has remained relatively constant over the 30 years they have studied it.

They do so with devices built to detect sudden and strong shifts in heat deep below the surface, which typically indicates a potential eruption.

The threat of a supervolcano eruption is very real, however remote. Observers at the YVO estimated that in the event of an eruption as much as four inches of ash could cover the American Midwest, to the detriment of crops and land.

Gases such as sulfur dioxide would spew into the atmosphere, rapidly cooling the globe and poisoning the air.

The proposed plan by NASA researchers strains plausibility with the technology available today. State of the art drilling machinery barely reaches the necessary depth and that is typically under conditions less hazardous than an active supervolcano.

Furthermore, the high cost and risks associated with the project would make it difficult to gain support from politicians, even with the promise of a new source of energy.

At present, there is little humanity can do to minimize the threat of a supervolcano eruption. NASA’s plan is just that, a plan, and one that would take well in excess of a human lifetime to complete, and therein lies its greatest challenge. The team that began the project would never know if they were successful.

Until then we remain at the mercy of Mother Nature.

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