As of recent the Yellowstone National Park has been in the news a lot. Fortunately, much of this “news” is just sensationalized, but unfortunately, some of it is not.
Yellowstone National Park has long been known for its splendor and beauty, attracting tourists from all over the world to bask in its incredible natural wonders. The park contains thousands of miles of trails for the active travelers, and a loop style road designed to let those who would rather relax and enjoy the sights from the comfort of their vehicle to drive throughout the park. This is also accompanied by roadside picnic areas along the journey.
In reading through the facts, the park is incredibly impressive on paper! The first national park in the world, the park spans a total of 2,219,789 acres. Within this vast area, you can find 9 visitor centers, 12 campgrounds, 322 species of birds, over 1000 native plants and more than 300 geysers! However, while the park may be designed for fun, it is not all fun and games.
There is one claim to fame that has been left off most tourism websites and informational brochures – far beneath the natural beauty of the park lies an enormous magma chamber, the heat of which is responsible for the park’s geysers and hot springs.
Recently the park has been making headlines for a new reason. The area has been rocked by a swarm of earthquakes throughout this summer that has caught the attention of multiple news sources! New Scientists reported 1400 earthquakes over a period of six weeks in June and July! This has drawn attention to the area, and with it to the supervolcano.
The Yellowstone National Park, and more specifically the Yellowstone supervolcano, is one of the most actively monitored places the world over. The area has been equipped with a number of different instruments including GPS sensors designed to record how the ground swells and shifts, seismometers to detect earthquake activity and satellite imagery to watch for any potential pressure changes in this large magma chamber.
After writing a detailed article about the history of supervolcanos throughout the world, and the potential risk should any of these areas face an eruption, the BBC was contacted by a group of NASA researchers. They advised that they wanted to share a report discussing the threat and what could be done about it. There are 20 supervolcanos currently known on Earth and combined they see a major eruption approximately once every 100,000 years.
Brian Wilcox of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology explained why NASA was focusing on this specific threat, stating “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. I came to the conclusion during that study that the supervolcano threat is substantially greater than the asteroid or comet threat.”
The biggest risk experts fear in relation to a supervolcano eruption is the threat of starvation due to a prolonged volcanic winter. Should this occur it would severely limit civilization in any efforts to produce food, leaving them to rely on the current food reserves. In recent years food consumption has exceeded the amount grown in many cases, leading the United Nations to predict in 2012 that the world’s food reserves would only last 74 days in the event of a crisis.
After researching the situation in depth, NASA scientists concluded that the solution to the problem would be to cool down the magma chamber. The volcano has the heat generating capacity of six industrial power plants, however only 60-70% of this heat is released into the atmosphere through the water which seeps into the chamber. The remaining heat continues to build up below the surface until it reaches the point of an explosive eruption.
The scientists then concluded that extracting even more of that heat, effectively stopping it from building it up would mean that the volcano would never erupt. Their plan looks at drilling into the supervolcano from the power sides, starting outside the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park in order to avoid potentially triggering an eruption. They would then pump water down at high pressures, reducing the temperature and extracting heat from the area day by day. The project, however, comes at a high price with an estimated cost of approximately $3.46 billion.
There may be a solution to this hurdle with the potential for investment. Wilcox explains, “Yellowstone currently leaks around 6GW in heat. Through drilling in this way, it could be used to create a geothermal plant, which generates electric power at extremely competitive prices of around $0.10/kWh. You would have to give the geothermal companies incentives to drill somewhat deeper and use hotter water than they usually would, but you would pay back your initial investment, and get electricity which can power 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 NASA scientists explained that they are hoping not only to see this plan move forward for the Yellowstone supervolcano, but also to inspire other scientists around the world to apply this technique to every active supervolcano on the planet.