Guest post by David Middleton
I didn’t realize this was “Apocalypse Week”….
Nasa’s ambitious plan to save Earth from a supervolcano
With an eruption brewing, it may be the only way to prevent the extinction of the human race.
17 August 2017
Lying beneath the tranquil settings of Yellowstone National Park in the US lies an enormous magma chamber. It’s responsible for the geysers and hot springs that define the area, but for scientists at Nasa, it’s also one of the greatest natural threats to human civilisation as we know it: a potential supervolcano.
Following an article we published about supervolcanoes last month, a group of Nasa researchers got in touch to share a report previously unseen outside the space agency about the threat – and what could be done about it.
“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,” explains Brian Wilcox of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at the California Institute of Technology. “I came to the conclusion during that study that the supervolcano threat is substantially greater than the asteroid or comet threat.”
Notes to the Beeb:
- It’s NASA, not Nasa.
- Civilization has a “z” in it.
- Yellowstone is a supervolcano, not a potential supervolcano.
If “the supervolcano threat is substantially greater than the asteroid or comet threat,” does this mean we can stop fretting about Gorebal Warming and the Sixth Mass Extinction? Is NASA really moving on to actual threats to the planet? Well, not threats to the planet… The planet has handled supervolcanoes, asteroids and comets quite well over its 4.5 billion year lifespan.
I’ll rephrase the question: Is NASA actually taking on genuine threats to humanity? Or at least threats to these United States? Let’s return to the article and find out…
- Would a supervolcano wipe us out?
- The greatest threats to humanity as we know it
- The atomic bomb too big to use
There are around 20 known supervolcanoes on Earth, with major eruptions occurring on average once every 100,000 years. One of the greatest threats an eruption may pose is thought to be starvation, with a prolonged volcanic winter potentially prohibiting civilisation from having enough food for the current population. In 2012, the United Nations estimated that food reserves worldwide would last 74 days.
That’s “funny.” One of the “solutions” proposed for Gorebal Warming is geoengineering a volcanic winter by pumping sulfate aerosols into the upper atmosphere. Maybe we just need to ramp up GHG emissions now, so that when Yellowstone does pop off another Ultra-Plinian eruption, Earth will be warm enough to handle a volcanic winter. A more pertinent concern is how we’ll handle having much of our nation covered with volcanic ash…What? You don’t like models?
As bad as the eruption and lava flows would be, the tephra deposition would be even worse.
|City||Distance km||Longitude||Latitude||Thickness (mm)|
|Salt Lake City||419||−111.891||40.761||247.9||124.9||408.3|
A Plinian or Ultra-Plinian eruption of Yellowstone would be really bad.
So… How does NASA plan to save us from this? Back to the Beeb:
When Nasa scientists came to consider the problem, they found that the most logical solution could simply be to cool a supervolcano down. A volcano the size of Yellowstone is essentially a gigantic heat generator, equivalent to six industrial power plants. Yellowstone currently leaks about 60-70% of the heat coming up from below into the atmosphere, via water which seeps into the magma chamber through cracks. The remainder builds up inside the magma, enabling it to dissolve more and more volatile gases and surrounding rocks. Once this heat reaches a certain threshold, then an explosive eruption is inevitable.
But if more of the heat could be extracted, then the supervolcano would never erupt. Nasa estimates that if a 35% increase in heat transfer could be achieved from its magma chamber, Yellowstone would no longer pose a threat. The only question is how?
Instead Nasa have conceived a very different plan. They believe the most viable solution could be to drill up to 10km down into the supervolcano, and pump down water at high pressure. The circulating water would return at a temperature of around 350C (662F), thus slowly day by day extracting heat from the volcano. And while such a project would come at an estimated cost of around $3.46bn (£2.69bn), it comes with an enticing catch which could convince politicians to make the investment.
“Yellowstone currently leaks around 6GW in heat,” Wilcox says. “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.”
Sounds like a win-win! Save humanity from both Yellowstone and from solar power!
So… What’s the catch?
But drilling into a supervolcano does not come without certain risks. Namely triggering the eruption you’re intending to prevent.
“The most important thing with this is to do no harm,” Wilcox says. “If you drill into the top of the magma chamber and try and cool it from there, this would be very risky. This could make the cap over the magma chamber more brittle and prone to fracture. And you might trigger the release of harmful volatile gases in the magma at the top of the chamber which would otherwise not be released.”
So… NASA proposes to drill these geothermal wells under the magma chamber and extract the heat from below. Sounds like they need to hire the world’s best “deep core drillers”… Again…
Instead, the idea is to drill in from the supervolcano from the lower sides, starting outside the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park, and extracting the heat from the underside of the magma chamber. “This way you’re preventing the heat coming up from below from ever reaching the top of the chamber which is where the real threat arises,” Wilcox says.
However those who instigate such a project will never see it to completion, or even have an idea whether it might be successful within their lifetime. Cooling Yellowstone in this manner would happen at a rate of one metre a year, taking of the order of tens of thousands of years until just cold rock was left. Although Yellowstone’s magma chamber would not need to be frozen solid to reach the point where it no longer posed a threat, there would be no guarantee that the endeavour would ultimately be successful for at least hundreds and possibly thousands of years.
Such a plan could be potentially applied to every active supervolcano on the planet, and Nasa’s scientists are hoping that their blueprints will encourage more practical scientific discussion and debate for tackling the threat.
It’s “meter,” not metre and there’s no “u” in endeavor… And such a plan might not cool the magma chamber at all…
The lower part of the magma chamber is about 10 miles deep. The magma reservoir goes down to the top of the mantle (~30 miles deep). The deepest geothermal well drilled to date, only goes down a bit over 3 miles.
Iceland is drilling the world’s deepest geothermal well
By Kesavan Unnikrishnan Jan 22, 2017 in Technology
Iceland is digging world’s deepest geothermal borehole into the heart of a volcano at a depth of 3.10 miles (5 km) to tap renewable energy. The extreme pressure and heat at such depths could derive 30 to 50 MW of electricity from one geothermal well.
10 miles is 52,800 feet. The deepest well ever drilled for any reason, the Kola Superdeep Borehole in Russia, only went down 40,230 feet. Prior to this, the deepest well was the 31,441 feet deep Lone Star Producing Co. 1–27 Bertha Rogers well in Washita County, Oklahoma. In a note of totally unrelated trivia: Lone Star Producing became Enserch Exploration, my first employer in the oil “bidness.” The Bertha Rogers TD’ed (reached total depth) in molten sulfur. Enserch’s executives all had sulfur paperweights from the Bertha Rogers.
While I am happy to find out that at least some folks at NASA are actually considering genuine threats to this nation and the other people on this planet… Their proposed solution to the supervolcano threat appears to be straight out of Fantasy Land.
Note: Yes, I know the BBC is British and that we are “two peoples separated by a common language.” I just like poking fun at the way they misspell so many words.
 Mastin L. G. Van Eaton A. R. Lowenstern J. B. (2014). Modeling ash fall distribution from a Yellowstone supereruption. Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems 15, 3459–3475.
 Kummer, Larry (2017). Geologists warn us about dangerous volcanoes. Will we spend pennies for warnings? Watts Up With That?