NASA has unveiled a plan to prevent the eruption of supervolcanoes, such as the Yellowstone Caldera in Wyoming. The ambitious, $3.5 billion plan would involve pumping water deep into the Earth to cool the volcano to prevent it from erupting — and the plan would result in the generation of cheap, low-emission electricity in the process.
Earth’s seven known supervolcanoes, large volcanoes that have the potential to eject more than 1,000 cubic kilometers (240 cubic miles) of material, typically only erupt once every 100,000 to 1 million years. The Yellowstone Caldera typically erupts once every 700,000 years, and last erupted 640,000 years ago, but thankfully its magma chamber isn’t currently showing any signs of blowing its top anytime soon. But researcher Brian Wilcox, with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says that the potential danger posed to future generations by these volcanoes is too great to ignore.
"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," Wilcox explained in an interview with the BBC. "I came to the conclusion during that study that the supervolcano threat is substantially greater than the asteroid or comet threat."
NASA’s plan to calm Yellowstone involves drilling channels 10 kilometers (16 miles) down into the rock surrounding the caldera, and pumping water deep into them at high pressure. The water would slowly cool the caldera — NASA estimates that it would take roughly a millennium to cool the area by the 35 percent that would be required to stave off an eruption — with the water emerging from the other end of the system heated to 350ºC (662ºF), to be used to generate clean, cheap electricity.
"Yellowstone currently leaks around 6GW in heat," Wilcox continues. "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… 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."
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