The Yellowstone Caldera, in the middle of the continental United States, is an enormous time bomb that, when it explodes, will have globally cataclysmic implications. After initially denying that the unusual amount of seismic activity witnessed last year was an indication of imminent danger, NASA scientists are proposing a solution that could save half the world while admitting that their intervention could initiate the explosion it was intended to prevent.
In 2017, increased seismic activity at Yellowstone generated a great deal of concern. More than 2,300 tremors were recorded between June and September, one of the largest earthquake swarms ever recorded at the site. Though geologists assured the public that the activity was normal for the site, another series of quakes and unusual eruptions beginning in February, increased fears that the supervolcano was waking up. An investigation revealed magma filling up in the underneath chamber of the supervolcano. In July, a massive, 100 ft.-wide fissure opened up in the Grand Teton National Park near Yellowstone, further increasing fears.
Yellowstone is listed as one of the top volcanic hotspots in the world. An eruption of the supervolcano would have global implications. An estimated 87,000 people would be killed immediately and two-thirds of the United States would become uninhabitable. The large spew of ash into the atmosphere would block out sunlight, resulting in an artificially long and intense winter worldwide, inhibiting agriculture and leading to global starvation.
Scientists from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) originally tasked with protecting the planet from threats from space decided to turn their talents to the threat posed by an eruption at Yellowstone.
“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,” Brian Wilcox of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at the California Institute of Technology explained to the BBC. “I came to the conclusion during that study that the supervolcano threat is substantially greater than the asteroid or comet threat.”
The last time the Yellowstone supervolcano erupted was 640,000 years ago which makes an impending eruption sound unlikely.
“Yellowstone explodes roughly every 600,000 years, and it is about 600,000 years since it last exploded, which should cause us to sit up and take notice,” Wilcox said.
The NASA scientists came to the conclusion that the most logical solution would be to simply to cool the magma down while it is still underground. The solution is similar to cooling industrial power plants. Yellowstone is estimated to generate heat equivalent to six industrial power plants. The caldera currently expels about 60 percent of its heat into the atmosphere via water which seeps into the magma chamber through cracks. The remainder builds up underground inside the magma, generating volatile gases and dissolving surrounding rocks. Once this heat reaches a certain threshold, then an explosive eruption is inevitable.
The NASA scientists estimate that if a 35 percent increase in heat transfer could be achieved, venting heat from the magma chamber, Yellowstone would no longer pose a threat. They propose achieving this by drilling into the supervolcano and pumping in water at high pressure. The scientists admit that there is a risk involved; they could initiate the eruption they are working to prevent.
“The most important thing with this is to do no harm,” Wilcox says. “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.”
The plan seems bold, perhaps overly so. When asked if the NASA scientists were guilty of hubris, of playing god with the fate of the world, Professor Natan Aviezer, a physics professor at Bar Ilan University who is a learned and devout Jew, answered emphatically that they were.
“There is no greater trait necessary to a scientist,” Professor Aviezer told Breaking Israel News.
As an illustration, he described an incident in which Albert Einstein was presented with astronomical observations that finally proved his controversial theories. Einstein received the earth shaking news with equanimity, saying, “I don’t need someone looking through a telescope to determine whether or not I am talking nonsense. If your observations had not corresponded to my theories, you would have had to go back and take your measurements again because my theories were correct.”
“If a scientist does not have the hubris to go against what the entire world believes, he is not a great scientist and nothing new would ever be discovered,” Aviezer said. “Modesty is necessary in real life but should not be part of the scientific process. The possibility of blowing up half the world should not bother a true scientist.”
Rabbi Avraham Arieh Trugman, director of the Ohr Chadash Torah Institute, noted that care in science and technology is a human and Biblical imperative. Rabbi Trugman referred to the flaming sword set to protect the Garden of Eden.
He drove the man out, and stationed east of the garden of Eden the cherubim [angels] and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the Tree of Life. Genesis 3:24
“Some commentaries explain that the angels were placed at the entrance to Eden to prevent man from entering while other commentaries explain that the angels had a secondary purpose; to show man the way back to the Tree of Life lest we forget where it is,” Rabbi Trugman explained to Breaking Israel News.
“This is related to science and technology in general,” the rabbi explained. “Science and technology have brought phenomenal good to mankind. But at the same time, these advances are a double-edged sword, bringing a huge amount of collateral damage. The same technology that brings us blessings of progress also brings with it a curse of damage, especially in the realms of the environment and various health issues”
Rabbi Trugman related this to a verse in Ecclesiastes.
So in a time of good fortune enjoy the good fortune; and in a time of misfortune, reflect: The one no less than the other was Hashem‘s doing; consequently, man may find no fault with Him. Ecclesiastes 7:14
“Everything in the natural world has two sides to it,” Rabbi Trugman said. “Everything affects everything else but we can’t see immediately all the ramifications. We don’t always know what the results will truly be.”
“No one is proposing we return to the caveman paradigm but we need to become much more careful with our decisions concerning technology. We should learn to anticipate and plan to rectify the inevitable negative results such as air and water pollution, climate chaos, and uncontrolled radiation, the results of all the good technology has created,” Rabbi Trugman warned. “In the immediate sense, we have done great good, creating benefits for so many people today. But at the same time, from the same sources, we have already set up havoc for future generations.”
Even if the NASA scientists do not stop to consider the enormity of their actions, practical hurdles may prevent them from moving forward with their plans for Yellowstone. The cost is estimated at approximately $3.5 billion.
“Building a big aqueduct uphill into a mountainous region would be both costly and difficult, and people don’t want their water spent that way,” Wilcox says. “People are desperate for water all over the world and so a major infrastructure project, where the only way the water is used is to cool down a supervolcano, would be very controversial.”
This huge expenditure could be offset by using the heat for generating electricity. The circulating water would return at a temperature of around 662 Fahrenheit.
“Yellowstone currently leaks around 6GW in heat,” Wilcox said. “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.”
“When people first considered the idea of defending the Earth from an asteroid impact, they reacted in a similar way to the supervolcano threat,” Wilcox says. “People thought, ‘As puny as we are, how can humans possibly prevent an asteroid from hitting the Earth.’ Well, it turns out if you engineer something which pushes very slightly for a very long time, you can make the asteroid miss the Earth. So the problem turns out to be easier than people think. In both cases it requires the scientific community to invest brain power and you have to start early.”