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NASA proposes ingenious $3 billion solution to halt Yellowstone eruption

A group of NASA scientists have come up with an ambitious plan to prevent the Yellowstone supervolcano from erupting.

The plan was revealed in response to a story the BBC published in July called “Would a supervolcano eruption wipe us out?”

According to the BBC, Yellowstone has had three supereruptions in the past 2.1 million years with the first one earning the title of largest of all time.

“The last eruption of Yellowstone would potentially have put ash across both American continents,” David Pyle of the University of Oxford told the BBC.

“If you take a continental land mass and you suddenly cover it with 10cm of volcanic ash, all the organic matter and trees will lose their leaves and probably die. Animals will take in chemicals which are toxic to them. The ground will suddenly be much brighter than before, so a lot of the incoming solar radiation might simply be reflected back into the atmosphere, resulting in a lengthy drought.”

In other words, another eruption would lead to a strain on food supplies and probably cause mass starvation.

So yeah, not good.

Following the July article, a group of NASA scientists got in touch with the BBC and shared a previously unreleased report about how a Yellowstone eruption could be prevented.

The solution they came up with is, on the surface, incredibly simple. What do you do with something that is too hot? You cool it down. The tricky part is how.

The NASA scientists said that if they drilled about 10 kilometres into the supervolcano they could pump down water at a high pressure. This circulating water would reduce the temperature and slowly cool the volcano.

It sounds easy, but it wouldn’t be cheap, coming with an estimated price tag of $USD 3.46 billion ($AUD 4.38 billion). However, there is a kicker – as the scientists claim the supervolcano could actually generate electricity.

“Yellowstone currently leaks around 6GW in heat,” Brian Wilcox of NASA told the BBC. “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,” he added.

People might want to start paying attention to NASA studies such as this one. On average, Yellowstone has exploded roughly every 600,000 years and is about due to blow again. Here’s the Hollywood take on how that would look. At least Woody Harrelson enjoyed it.

About the author

Stefan is an Adelaide-based freelance writer. In his spare time, he plays tennis badly, collects vinyl and brushes up on his Mandarin. Follow Stefan on Twitter

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