A gigantic magma chamber lies beneath the Yellowstone National Park, US. It’s a site known for its hot springs and geysers. But, according to NASA scientists, this area is not that peaceful after all and it can turn into a supervolcano in the future. According to Brian Wilcox of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the potential threat posed by the supervolcano is way bigger than the comet or asteroid threat.
There are almost 20 supervolcanoes known to be located on Earth. On an average of once every 100,000 years, massive eruptions occur. One of the most adverse threats posed by a supervolcano’s eruption is starvation. It may be difficult to provide food for the current population in case of an extended volcanic winter. The United Nations estimates that the world food reserves would not last for more than 74 days.
A supervolcano that is as large as Yellowstone is comparable to almost six industrial power plants. Currently, Yellowstone exudes about 60%-70% of the heat into the air through water that, through cracks and fissures, oozes into the magma chamber. The left-over accumulates in the magma, while dissolving surrounding rocks and vaporous gases. An inevitable eruption explodes once the heat crosses a prescribed capacity.
According to the scientists, in order to counter the disaster, the supervolcano would have to be cooled down. If an estimate of 35% of the heat could somehow be extracted or transferred from the magma chamber, then the threat posed by Yellowstone could be averted.
One of the ways to achieve this would be a deliberate increase in the amount of water in the supervolcano. But, at a time when people need a lot of water all across the world, utilising the natural resource for the volcano would cause a worldwide uproar. Not to mention, constructing an aqueduct would prove difficult as well as expensive.
Alternatively, NASA has come up with a better plan. According to them, it would be feasible to forcefully pump down water after drilling down 10 kms into the supervolcano. After circulation, the water would return at a temperature of 350C (662F). This would ensure that heat would be slowly extracted from the volcano. This project would approximately cost $3.46bn (£2.69bn).
According to Brian Wilcox, currently, Yellowstone leaks 6GW in heat. By drilling this way, a geothermal plant could be created that, in turn, can generate electricity, which can be used to power the neighbouring area for more than thousands of years. But, anti-climactically, drilling into a supervolcano might fracture the cap over the magma chamber, which might trigger an eruption.
One way to counter this would be to drill into the supervolcano from the lower sides, which would stop the heat to reach the top of the chamber. However, those who wish to initiate this project may not even be able to live to see it succeed. Cooling down of the supervolcano would occur at a rate of one metre a year. Even though the ultimate benefit of this plan would surface after a long time, the electric power generated from it would be highly laudable.