A giant volcano or so called supervolcano is located beneath Yellowstone National Park. The heat from this volcano powers all of the park’s famous geysers and hot springs, so most tourists probably don’t worry about having tons of hot magma under their feet. But perhaps they should: The Yellowstone supervolcano is a disaster waiting to happen.
What is a supervolcano?
Supervolcanos are characterized as volcanic centers that have had eruptions that covered more than 240 cubic miles. The US has two: one at Yellowstone and another at Long Valley in California.
Ominous earthquake activity
The supervolcano under Yellowstone National Park has once again become a point of focus for doomsdayers after scientists picked up some ominous earthquake activity in July 2017.
Scientists from the University of Utah, responsible for monitoring the supervolcano in Wyoming, said a “swarm” of 464 earthquakes began on June 12 – the biggest being a 4.5 magnitude shudder on June 15.
“The epicenter of the shock was located in Yellowstone National Park, eight miles north-northeast of the town of West Yellowstone, Montana,” UU scientists said in a statement. “The earthquake was reported felt in the towns of West Yellowstone and Gardiner, Montana, in Yellowstone National Park, and elsewhere in the surrounding region.”
The 4.5 magnitude quake is the largest to hit the supervolcano since a 4.8 quake struck in March 2014. Scientists noted that the “energetic sequence of earthquakes… included approximately 30 earthquakes of magnitude 2 and larger and four earthquakes of magnitude 3 and larger, including today’s magnitude 4.5 event.”
They added: “This is the highest number of earthquakes at Yellowstone within a single week in the past five years, but is fewer than weekly counts during similar earthquakes swarms in 2002, 2004, 2008 and 2010.” According to experts from the United States Geological Survey, it would take a series of intense earthquakes and ground uplift to get a mega-eruption started. Well, let’s hope for the best.
NASA to stop doomsday supervolcano
The supervolcano erupts about every 600,000 years, and it’s been about that long since the last eruption. That means the volcano could erupt any day now, and if it does it’ll send enough dust and ash into the sky to blot out the sun for years, along with blowing a 25-mile-wide crater in the western U.S. That’s why a group of NASA scientists and engineers are developing a plan to prevent an eruption by stealing the volcano’s heat.
Volcanoes like Yellowstone spend hundreds or thousands of years gradually building up heat until they reach a critical point, and then they erupt. But outlets like geysers and hot springs can bleed out some of that heat, delaying the inevitable eruption.
NASA’s plan is to drill a hole into the side of the volcano and pump water through it. When the water comes back out, it’ll be heated to over 600 degrees, slowly cooling the volcano. The team hopes that given enough time, this process will take enough heat from the volcano to prevent it from ever erupting.
As a bonus, the scientists are proposing to use the heated water as a source of geothermal energy, potentially powering the entire Yellowstone region with heat from the volcano that wants to destroy it. A geothermal generator could produce energy at around $0.10 per kWh, competitive with other energy sources.
Of course, this plan is the definition of “long-term.” In order to siphon off enough heat to neutralize the threat of the volcano, the geothermal generator would have to be run continuously for hundreds or thousands of years. But on the flipside, that means thousands of years of free geothermal energy.
NASA hopes its proposal will be adopted soon—after all, it’s only a matter of time before the volcano erupts—and that their idea will be implemented at other supervolcanoes across the world. Hopefully these generators will be in place before any of them decide to explode.
What would happen if it erupted
If the supervolcano underneath Yellowstone National Park ever had another massive eruption, it could spew ash for thousands of miles across the United States, damaging buildings, smothering crops, and shutting down power plants. It’d be a huge disaster.
Molten lava more than 1,000 degrees oozing from an eruption might be less of a concern than the ash. The eruption would likely cover the ground with as much as 4 inches of gray ash, which could be detrimental to crops growing in the Midwest.
Along with the ash, the supervolcano would spew a whole bunch of gasses, including sulfur dioxide, a gas that can lead to acid rain as well as global cooling as it reflects the sun away from the Earth.
The explosion likely wouldn’t wipe out human life, but it certainly would be destructive, especially to the western half of the US.
In the meantime, researchers are keeping a close watch on Yellowstone to check for warning signs that an eruption might be underway.