People have more reason to be concerned over a potential supervolcano eruption, given the increased seismic activity in the Yellowstone area. But now, NASA is looking at a highly risky way to mitigate a mega eruption, by drilling straight into the supervolcano.
According to the BBC, researchers at NASA are increasingly concerned with the Yellowstone supervolcano, and one NASA advisor has stepped forward to share about NASA’s ambitious, and even desperate-sounding plan, on dealing with it. The only concern is, the wild-sounding plan, which may sound like a death wish to some, may trigger a catastrophic eruption instead of stopping one.
Brian Wilcox, former member of the NASA Advisory Council on Planetary Defense, said that one plan includes using a high-pressure water drill to drill to the bottom of the supervolcano, in order to release heat from the magma chamber.
“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. I came to the conclusion during that study that the supervolcano threat is substantially greater than the asteroid or comet threat,” Wilcox said.
There are risks when drilling into the supervolcano. Wilcox said, “The most important thing with this is to do no harm. 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,” he added.
Taking the threat of a Yellowstone eruption into consideration comes at a sensitive time. Researchers at the University of Utah’s Seismograph Stations (UUSS) have been detecting concerning seismic activity, starting in June of this year, around the site of the supervolcano. “The quakes was felt in surrounding towns of West Yellowstone, Gardiner, Montana, in Yellowstone National Park,” said a spokesperson for the research team.
Whilst the university locates an average 1,500 to 2,000 earthquakes in Yellowstone each year, what’s significant about the recent swarm of quakes is that they’re getting more frequent, and bigger, with the largest being 4.4 in magnitude on the Richter scale, occurring on June 16, per the University’s data.
“The swarm began on June 12, 2017 and, as of 13:00 MDT on August 2nd, 2017, is composed of 1,562 events,” reads a recent UUSS statement.
To put that into perspective, the UUSS have detected almost as many earthquakes as they would in one year—merely within a couple of months. Prior to August, the number of earthquakes had already reached over 1,200.
If the Yellowstone supervolcano were to erupt, it is believed it could be 1,000 times as powerful as the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption. According to the University of Utah Seismograph Stations, “Mt. St. Helens erupted a total of 1 km3 (0.24 mi3) of material.” Yet, Yellowstone’s first recorded eruption, occurring 2.1 million years ago, erupted 2,500 km3 (600 mi3) of material. Its subsequent mega eruptions occurred 1.3 million years ago, and another around 640,000 years ago.
There are 20 known supervolcanos on Earth, and if Yellowstone erupts, its blast could potentially impact not just the continent of North America, but the whole world.