Yellowstone supervolcano poses dire consequences if it erupts

By Megan King ’19 & Lauren Pak ’21

At the monumental Yellowstone National Park, a supervolcano will unexpectedly erupt, with lethal effects.

“The last supereruption about 631,000 years ago spewed 240 cubic miles of pulverized rock and ash into the atmosphere, covering nearly half the country in the powdery residue,” according to USA Today.

Scientists can gauge and predict that though the supervolcano is not expected to erupt within the next few centuries, it will eventually rupture, sending the Earth into disaster.

“While scientists agree that Yellowstone is not likely to erupt anytime soon, if and when it does, the event would be catastrophic,” said  Shannon Hall in a National Geographic article. “A massive magma chamber feeds this supervolcano, and an eruption would pack enough power to expel more than a thousand cubic kilometers of rock and ash at once. That would blanket most of the continental United States in debris and potentially plunge Earth into a volcanic winter.”

While some live in fear of the future, many continue to live their daily lives, as the signs for eruption are not present.

“The magma underneath Yellowstone would also need to be heated up-a lot,” according to USA Today. “Right now, seismic studies indicate it’s mostly solidified, not the hot liquid required for an eruption.”

In fact, relief is slowly increasing, since there are some theories stating the supervolcano may never erupt.

“It’s entirely possible those conditions may never exist again,” said Ilya Bindeman, a University of Oregon geology professor who has been studying Yellowstone’s supervolcano for 20 years. “The supervolcano may be dying. Each super eruption melts part of the crust, hardening it and making it more difficult to generate enough heat to remelt the material … It just cannot get hot enough to erupt again.”

Despite the lack of knowledge about when or if the supervolcano will erupt, NASA has been formulating a plan to prevent the eradication of humans if the volcano does explode.

“In 2017, NASA scientists ran a thought experiment to see if they might be able to halt a future super eruption,” wrote Hall in the National Geographic article. “The internal study led by Brian Wilcox, an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, suggested drilling a series of wells around the perimeter of the park and pumping cold water down into the hot rock. The hypothetical solution would cool down Yellowstone’s magma chamber and prevent calamity.”

By using water to cool off the volcano, NASA will not only stop the eruption, but also provide geothermal energy, generated and stored far below Earth’s surface, to the surrounding area.  

“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,” said Wilcox to BBC News. “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.”

However, no new progress has been made to enact this idea.  

“Yellowstone and other national parks have long been protected from commercial energy development to ensure that these regions remain pristine…” wrote Hall. “In short, the power plant would be an eyesore. It would transform a region known for its stark beauty, diverse wildlife and lack of cellular coverage into an industrialized zone crisscrossed with power lines.”

If the supervolcano erupts, the Yellowstone Caldera would propel the earth into a volcanic winter, blanketing nearly all of the U.S. in debris and ashes. This occurred around 630,000 years ago, causing a volcanic winter that lasted approximately 80 years, causing a 5.4 degree temperature drop in the ocean.

“Thankfully,” stated a United States Geological Survey, “the probability of such an eruption in any given century or millennium is exceedingly low.”

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