For most of our recorded history, civilizations found ways to survive in almost every kind of environment our Earth has to offer. Humans want to build our homes in places where we, our families, and our children can thrive. So why would societies build on the slopes of something as volatile as a volcano?
Volcanoes actually offer incredibly fertile grounds for societies to flourish. Fertile soils caused by ashfall are rich with minerals making them prime locations for agriculture and farming. (1) However, entire civilizations have been destroyed by the mounts on which they built their homes. Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii immediately come to mind, and the fallout resulting in the 1980 eruption Mount Saint Helens still lingers in modern memory.
It can be frightening to think of the destruction a volcano can wreak on a city or region. However, some volcanoes pose a bigger threat than we are ready to imagine. In fact, waiting beneath the expanse of Yellowstone National Park is one enormous magma chamber. We flock to see its volcanic activity in the form of the geysers and hot springs that define the area. However, tourists often don’t consider that they are standing on one of the greatest natural threats to human civilization as we know it. After all, the whole of Yellowstone is a potential supervolcano.
Eruption Threat Level: Supervolcano
A “super” volcano is one that erupts at a magnitude of eight, according to the United States Geological Survey. Eight is the highest ranking on the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) used to measure the explosiveness of an eruption. (2)
Brian Wilcox is a member of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at the California Institute of Technology. He was also a member of the NASA Advisory Council on Planetary Defense. This was an initiative that studied possible ways to defend the planet from the threat of asteroids and comets. With the last major planetary extinction resulting from an asteroid strike, we appreciate their foresight! However, Wilcox’s experience on the project provided him with a chilling insight. “I came to the conclusion during that study,” He said, “that the supervolcano threat is substantially greater than the asteroid or comet threat.” (3)
There are around 20 known supervolcanoes on Earth. One of the greatest threats a single eruption could pose is global starvation. The amount of ash and gasses a supervolcano eruption could produce could launch the globe into a prolonged volcanic winter. This cooling of the lower atmosphere could cripple agriculture, making it impossible to grow enough food for the current population. In 2012, the United Nations estimated that food reserves worldwide would last 74 days in an event of this nature. (4)
According to NASA reports, major eruptions occur on average once every 100,000 years. That’s longer than humanity can account for with written history. Yellowstone’s supervolcano may seem increasingly less threatening considering that scientists estimate it goes 600,000 years between each eruption. However, scientists also believe it has been approximately 600,000 years since the last eruption. With that perspective, it’s easy to understand why people like Brian Wilcox are beginning to look for a solution.
A Plan to Save Humanity
When NASA scientists came to consider the problem, they found that the most logical solution might be the simplest. They believe the best answer may simply be to cool supervolcanos down.
Eruption takes place when the heat builds up inside the volcano’s magma. This allows it to dissolve more of the surrounding rocks and minerals, producing more volatile gases. Once this heat reaches a specific threshold an explosive eruption becomes inevitable.
Thankfully, 60-70% of the Yellowstone volcano’s heat currently escapes via groundwater. This water becomes superheated and allows the volcano to release its energy buildup in Yellowstone’s famous geysers. NASA thinks if more of the heat could be released this way, the supervolcano would never erupt. In fact, they estimate that only a 35% increase in heat transfer is needed to neutralize the Yellowstone threat.
They believe the most viable solution could be to drill up to 10km down into the supervolcano and pump water down at high pressure. The water would then slowly extract energy from the volcano one day at a time. While a project of this magnitude would cost a humble estimate of $3.46 billion in US dollars, it’s hard to put a price on the survival of our species. NASA’s thermal drilling might have added benefits as well.
Beneficial Side Effects
“Through drilling in this way, it could be used to create a geothermal plant,” Wilcox says. With so much heat, this particular plant would generate electric power on an incredible scale. Wilcox estimates it there would be enough output to power the surrounding area potentially for tens of thousands of years. “And the long-term benefit,” He reminds us, “is that you prevent a future supervolcano eruption, which would devastate humanity.”
While promising, an undertaking of such magnitude could never be completed in our lifetime. Just because we don’t expect to see Yellowstone’s eruption for ourselves either, we shouldn’t go into the future unprepared. NASA believes we should start now before it becomes too late.