NASA Has a $3.46 Billion Plan to Cool Yellowstone and Harvest it for Energy

'The supervolcano threat is substantially greater than the asteroid threat.'
Chris Young
The Great Fountain Geyser at the Yellowstone National Park.lightpix/iStock

Located below Yellowstone National Park's picturesque hot springs and geysers lies a gargantuan magma chamber that could one day erupt as a supervolcano. According to NASA, the supervolcano is one of the greatest natural threats to human civilization, and it is substantially more dangerous than the threat of asteroids.

That's why the U.S. space agency has devised an ambitious plan for ensuring the volcano remains dormant, a 2017 BBC report explained. As a bonus, NASA's method would also provide the surrounding region with electricity, though the project would cost a staggering $3.46 billion.

Drilling holes into the side of a volcano

Both a civilization-ending asteroid impact and the eruption of the chamber, called the Yellowstone Caldera, are very unlikely to occur during our lifetimes. The odds of a 5-10 kilometer wide asteroid — like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs — hitting Earth is almost negligible at 0.000001%, while Yellowstone isn't predicted to erupt any time in the next 10,000 years.

Still, in 2017, Brian Wilcox, who was a member of a NASA Advisory Council on Planetary Defense that conducted a study on the threat of asteroids and comets, said he "came to the conclusion during that study that the supervolcano threat is substantially greater than the asteroid or comet threat." There are approximately 20 supervolcanoes on Earth, and major eruptions occur on average once every 100,000 years. A prolonged volcanic winter from a supervolcano eruption could prevent humanity from having enough food for the world's population, leading to widespread starvation.

In his interview with the BBC, Wilcox explained NASA's plans to prevent this from happening. The U.S. space agency itself admits that the plan isn't without risk, though the rewards would outweigh the risks if they prevent a cataclysmic event capable of wiping out humanity. The plan would see holes drilled into the volcano's lower sides, outside the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park. The project organizers would then pump high-pressure cold water into and then out of the supervolcano. The water going in would cool the volcano, while the outgoing water would reach temperatures of approximately 350°C (662°F) and could be used to generate electricity.

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Supervolcanoes could power surrounding areas for 'tens of thousands of years'

According to Wilcox, the plan is only theoretical at this point and there is a lack of data on the risks of drilling into the side of a volcano. Still, he believes the $3.46 billion experiment could be funded by geothermal companies who would see a return on their investment and who would "get electricity which can power the surrounding area for a period of potentially tens of thousands of years." On top of that, "the long-term benefit is that you prevent a future supervolcano eruption which would devastate humanity," Wilcox told the BBC in 2017.

"Yellowstone currently leaks around 6GW in heat," Wilcox said. "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." Aside from aiming to find a method for mitigating the threat of supervolcanoes such as Yellowstone, NASA also hopes its outlined approach will encourage others in the scientific community to engage with the problem. These massive potentially destructive magma chambers ironically have the potential to provide energy and mitigate the effects of climate change, the more urgent existential threat to humanity.

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