JPL Scientists Work to Save Humanity from Threat of Yellowstone Supervolcano

Published : Sunday, November 12, 2017 | 5:57 AM

rand Prismatic Spring and Midway Geyser Basin at Yellowstone National Park. Image by Brocken Inaglory, CC BY-SA 3.0

A team of scientists led by engineers at Jet Propulsion Laboratory is crafting an ingenious plan to defuse a simmering supervolcano beneath the Yellowstone National Park by channeling its building geothermal energy into usable electricity.

Known as the Yellowstone Caldera, the monster volcano is an enormous crater-like depression that measures 30 miles by 45 miles and is filled with molten magma.

“The primary objective…is to gradually defang Yellowstone as a threat to humanity,” said Dr. Brian Wilcox, an aerospace engineer working at NASA’s JPL and one of the scientists involved in the project.

“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,” Wilcox told the BBC recently. “I came to the conclusion during that study that the supervolcano threat is substantially greater than the asteroid or comet threat.”

According to scientists, an eruption from a supervolcano can spew out hundreds of cubic miles of magma. However, such cataclysmic outbursts are extremely rare.

Geologic evidence suggests that Yellowstone’s supervolcano mounts a massive eruption once every 600,000 to 800,000 years with the most recent at about 640,000 years ago.

“Even though it’s unlikely to happen in anybody’s given lifetime, it will eventually happen,” Wilcox says of an eruption of the Yellowstone Caldera.

According to scientists, in the event of a Yellowstone super-eruption, everything within 60 miles could be destroyed, with ash spreading over most of North America.

Aside from the hot volcanic material spewed out, dust and gases released by the eruption would also blot out enough sunlight to kill crops and cause a volcanic winter that could last for a decade and trigger famine worldwide.

Wilcox, however, believes that drilling into the hot rock near Yellowstone’s magma chamber which starts several miles outside the park could help cool down the supervolcano. Water would be pumped through the borehole into the hot rock and then return to the surface at a temperature of more than 600 degrees Fahrenheit.

The hot water from the volcano could then be used to power turbines and generate electricity. After the water has cooled down, it would then be pumped back underground to steal away more heat.

Wilcox said caution should be taken during the drilling process as it could accidentally trigger an eruption. Going slowly and approaching the magma chamber from the sides and beneath would be the safest way tackle the job.

“Most people think of a supervolcano as this amazingly massive thing that is so huge compared to puny human engineering capabilities,” Wilcox said. “It’s not so much that the amount of heat represented is so vast beyond human experience. It’s that it’s stored for a very, very long period and then released all at once.”

According to NASA scientists, the drilling project would cost about $3.46 billion, and it would take thousands of years for all the heat from the volcano to be fully extracted.

With the risk of an eruption slowly subsiding, scientists said there would be plenty of heat to generate electricity at competitive prices.

 

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