NASA plots to save humanity from YellowstoneSource: Jackson Hole News & Guide
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By Mike Koshmrl
Most anyone who hangs their hat in northwest Wyoming knows of the possibility of the cataclysmic Yellowstone supervolcano awakening after 640,000 years.
The short of it: The explosion causes lots of death, especially locally, and humanity is thrown into a months-long tailspin because of sediment-clouded skies, cooler temperatures and failed crops.
However unlikely, it’s a grim enough scenario that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has developed a contingency plan in case the supervolcano begins to give signs of going pop.
The theoretical model to stop the explosion was outlined in a recent NASA paper headed by California Institute of Technology Jet Propulsion Laboratory Fellow Brian Wilcox. It’s attached to this story online at JHNewsAndGuide.com.
“I came to the conclusion that supervolcanos were a much bigger threat than asteroids,” Wilcox said, “so it was percolating in my mind whether that could be pursued.
“The chance that it’s going to erupt in anyone’s lifetime is about 0.1 percent,” he said. “Still, it’s going to erupt eventually, so it’s high time we start thinking about it.”
A 2015 grant came through, he said, that resulted in a six-month study to determine if it was possible to stop a supervolcanic eruption.
“The good news is yes, it’s probably possible,” Wilcox said. “And the bad news is it takes much longer than a human lifetime. It takes at least 1,000 years or several thousand years before you’ve defanged the beast.
“That’s OK, because it erupts every 600-odd thousand years,” he said. “Having it take several thousand years shouldn’t be a problem, except that it’s roughly comparable to human history.”
The complicating factor is the enormous network of magma chambers underlying Yellowstone. Many chambers and plumes contain thousands of cubic miles of molten and nonmolten magma that is driven by incredible levels of heat — but not incomprehensible amounts.
Wilcox calculated that the supervolcano leaks about 6 gigawatts of magmatic thermal power continuously into the environment. About a third of that energy, he said, isn’t being released but is building up, slowly stretching it toward eruption. If that amount of heat was instead withdrawn, it would bring the magma chamber into a stagnant state. Remove even more heat and theoretically it would begin to cool.
“In our case,” Wilcox said, “we wanted to be sure that it would never erupt.”
The model, he said, assumed that they’d withdraw 20 gigawatts of power. That’s approximately the power generation of 10 coal-fired Jim Bridger Power Plants.
The technology exists today to pipe heat out of the caldera, which starts around 4 miles underground. The Department of Energy and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology already assessed what it would take to tap the caldera, and Wilcox and his colleagues leaned on their findings.
The MIT model called for 160 injection wells that together could move water at a rate of about 450 cubic feet per second. Individually, the wells would be spaced about every 0.9 miles along Yellowstone’s boundary and use directional drilling techniques to bore into the magma chamber from outside the park.
Drilling, Wilcox said, would avoid fractured rock and tap the underside of the caldera to minimize risk.
“There’s lots of bad things that can happen when you’re drilling,” he said. “Loss of well control is common even when you’re not drilling close to a supervolcano, so one has to be quite careful. This would take a lot of study.”
The heat that’s extracted, according to Wilcox’s study, pencils out as a viable source of utility-scale electricity. A geothermal plant extracting 20 gigawatts of heat would cost about $3.5 billion to build and could expect to have a generation output of around 3.5 gigawatts. The result would be electricity for 10 cents a kilowatt hour, a competitive or even cheap price in most of the country.
The Yellowstone magma chamber, in other words, could be a cheap source of power, and tapping it would have the potential side benefit of saving thousands of lives from a supervolcanic eruption.
“It’s not at all out of the question to control this thing if you’re willing to keep your nose to the grindstone for 600,000 years,” Wilcox said. “It would only take a few thousand years to cool it off, but you’d have to keep doing it forever basically because if you ever stop it will come right back.”
But Moose resident and Yellowstone caldera expert Bob Smith is a skeptic. Three decades ago the University of Utah professor was involved in an unrelated study that concluded it would be exceedingly difficult to drill miles through superheated rock into the caldera.
“The technology has changed a lot in 30 years,” Smith said, “but my impression is that it’s a far-reaching idea that’s really very impractical at this point.”