In terms of events that are capable of ending the world, volcanic eruptions are both extremely likely and very difficult to predict. NASA actually considers super volcanos to be one of the biggest natural threats and in order to protect humanity against the dangers that they pose, researchers have come up with a clever little idea.
Under Yellowstone National Park is one of the biggest explosives known on Earth: an enormous magma reservoir responsible for all the hot springs and geysers in the area. There are twenty super volcanos that we know of in the world, including ones found at the Long Valley Caldera, Valles Caldera, Lake Toba in Indonesia and Taupo Nui in New Zealand. The majority of these reservoirs are found in America and East Asia.
These super volcanos cause major eruptions that occur on average once every 100,000 years according to estimations. One of the biggest threats that these eruptions pose to humanity, as well as the direct impact on the area around it, is world famine. A volcanic winter, caused by the release of particles that block the sun light in the sky, is enough to destroy or damage all of our agriculture very quickly.
In 2012, the United Nations estimated that the worlds food reserves would only be enough to last for 74 days.
Cooling down a volcano
So what else could we do to avoid such a catastrophe? For scientists at the American Space Agency, the most logical solution is to ‘cool down’ the super volcano. Yellowstone currently releases about 60 to 70% of its heat into the atmosphere, thanks to water which seeps into the magma chamber through cracks. The rest of the heat builds up in the magma and since there is no way to get rid of it, this build up inevitably results in an explosive eruption.
According to NASA’s estimations, removing 35% of this super volcano’s heat would considerably reduce the current risks. But such an initiative is quite complex and controversial to put into effect.
‘Building a big aqueduct uphill into a mountainous region would be both costly and difficult,’ explains Brian Wilcox who was a member of the NASA Advisory Council on Planetary Defence.
‘People are desperate for water all over the world and so a major infrastructure project, where the only way the water is used is to cool down a super volcano, would be very controversial,’ adds the specialist.
A 100% natural power station
NASA has therefore started considering a cleverer trick which consists of drilling up to 10 kilometres into the super volcano and then pumping water in at a high pressure. This water would then return to the surface at a temperature of around 350°C and by doing so, reducing the temperature that builds up in the magma. But that’s not all.
‘Yellowstone currently leaks around 6 gigawatts in heat,’ explains Wilcox.
‘Through drilling in this way, it could be used to create a geothermal plant, which generates electric power at extremely competitive prices of around .10/kWh (around 7p).’ As well as being a considerable advantage when it comes to protecting humanity, this solution could also have ecological and economic benefits.
This project would (potentially) take thousands of years to cool the super volcano down completely, with an estimated progression of one meter per year. However, when it comes to preserving humanity, we need to think now more than ever about the long-term goals. The main immediate benefit will be managing to obtain electricity thanks to geothermal energy and as for whether this idea will be enough to avoid an explosive eruption in the next few years, only time will tell.