Yellowstone National Park (NPS) and its famous supervolcano are in the news a lot recently, and that’s perfectly understandable: It’s been rocked by earthquakes aplenty, and geophysical maps have shown how it’s continuously changing shape. Don’t fret though – the chance of any eruption taking place this year is around one-in-730,000, and even if it did get a bit volcanic, it could just be a slow-moving lava flow.
Nevertheless, there’s still a good chance that the cauldron could one day trigger another supereruption, which would – among other things – devastate the US, destroy much of the region’s agriculture, trigger an economic collapse, and kill hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people, mainly through starvation.
That’s why a team at NASA have come up with a rather audacious plan to actually prevent this from taking place: They’re going to drill into the magma chamber and cool it down. Or, just possibly, they're only thinking about doing so, and this plan is nothing more than a rather engaging thought experiment. Either way, it's rather wonderful and fun to peruse through.
As first reported by BBC Future - and as now seen by IFLScience - a study by the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) essentially confirmed that the threat of a supervolcanic eruption was far more prescient than that of an asteroid or cometary impact. Although prediction methods may one day reveal precisely when such supervolcanoes will erupt, for now the best that can be done is to prepare for the worst.
NASA’s researchers apparently decided that this wasn’t good enough. The threat had to be directly tackled, but what could feasibly be done? After all, it’s not as simple as just plugging a volcano up.
Magma is only eruptible when it’s sufficiently molten. If too much of it is solid, then it’s not exactly going anywhere fast.
To be fair, the United States Geological Survery (USGS) is currently unsure whether there is enough eruptible material waiting below at present to even cause a major eruption. This white paper by NASA is based on several key assumptions about the state of the magma plumbing beneath Yellowstone, many of which can't be substantiated at present.
Despite this, according to this newly released report, cooling the magma down by around 35 percent would prevent a supervolcanic eruption from ever taking place.
Based on this estimate, drilling into the supervolcano’s vast magma source turned out to be the only sensible mitigation option. Icelandic scientists are already drilling into the rock just above the chilly nation’s magma chambers in order to generate clean, geothermal energy – so why not do the same to Yellowstone, extract significant amounts of heat, and chill its plumbing down?