Wednesday, January 23, 2019

NASA has a $3.5 billion idea to save Earth from a supervolcano apocalypse

There's a volcano beneath Yellowstone National Park. But it's not your average volcano. It's hundreds of meters deep, larger than the state of Rhode Island and capable of eruptions thousands of times more violent than anything we've ever witnessed. This is a supervolcano. It's one of three in the US and it's considered to be the greatest volcano threat in the country.
If Yellowstone's volcano erupted, it would be catastrophic. The eruption would shoot a tower of ash into the air, taller than Mount Everest, covering nearby cities in over a meter of ash and creating giant clouds that would block the sun for decades. Ultimately, global temperatures would drop, plants would die, and agriculture would fail. In fact, the UN estimates that the entire world would run out of food in just over two months. 

Now, Yellowstone has a history of eruptions like this. It's erupted three times in the past 2.1 million years. That's roughly once every 600,000 years. And the last time it erupted? Oh, around 600,000 years ago. But despite what these sensational headlines might have you think, Yellowstone is not going to erupt tomorrow or even 1,000 years from now. In fact, scientists estimate that another supereruption might not happen for another few million years or so. Or with some scientific ingenuity, we could make it so that Yellowstone never erupted again.
That was the idea behind a thought experiment that several scientists at NASA JPL put together in 2015. The idea? Cool the volcano down. After all, heat is what often causes volcanic eruptions in the first place. It rises from Earth's core and builds up within the volcanic chamber until one day the pressure is so great it explodes. And Yellowstone is no different. Each year, it produces enough heat to power six industrial power plants. About 60 to 70% of that heat escapes through hot springs and geysers, like Old Faithful. But the rest stays underground, inside the supervolcano's magma chambers. And it's here that the scientists staged the attack. In the scenario, they propose to drill a series of wells around the perimeter of the supervolcano. The wells would be some of the deepest in the world, reaching up to 10 km below the surface. They'd pump cold water down into the wells, which over time, would cool a ring of rock around the magma chamber. Sort of like how coolant in your car carries heat away from its engine. And bonus, the water's heated to around 340 degrees Celsius as it moves through the chamber. So the plan is to loop it back through the wells and use it to drive an electric generator, which could power the surrounding area for tens of thousands of years, essentially transforming Yellowstone into a giant geothermal power station. And ultimately, paying for itself in the end.
The scientists concluded that yes, in theory, this could work. But would we ever actually try it? Probably not. For one thing, you'd have to extract 20 gigawatts of energy to cool the volcano down to a safe temperature, which would take an estimated 16,000 years from start to finish. Not to mention, the plan would cost $3.46 billion. That's about 20% of NASA's annual budget. Even worse, cooling the rock could create fractures near the magma chamber, which might trigger a supereruption, the very thing we're trying to avoid in the first place. But lucky for us, the volcano is still sleeping. And probably will be for a while.
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