When faced with a potential global catastrophe, we look to our best and brightest to save the day. In the case of the supervolcano lurking beneath Yellowstone Park that could actually erupt and threaten life on Earth as we know it, we turn to the men and women of the United States' National Aeronautics and Space Administration or NASA. No word yet as to whether Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck have been approached to help implement the reportedly $3.5 billion plan.
Saving life on Earth is probably worth it, though, right?
According to Brian Wilcox, who works at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, the government agency has always planned for disasters from above, even though disasters from below are just as possible. "I was a member of the NASA Advisory Council on Planetary Defence 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 told the BBC.
With each passing moment, we edge closer to death from below, not above, thanks to the Yellowstone Caldera, one of around 20 known potentially Earth-killing volcanoes. Mind you, NASA says the danger is in no way imminent. In fact, NASA goes far enough to say that it won't happen within the lifetime of anyone reading this, to which we put on some Aerosmith and say, challenge accepted, nerds.
Staying cool isn't always easy
While it's all well and good to reassure the frightened public, there's this to consider: Scientists think that the Yellowstone supervolcano erupted at a massive, apocalyptic scale every 600,000 years and say that it's been around that long since its last so-called "super-eruption" (that's a scary word).
So what does this super-pricey plan to prevent a super-eruption actually entail? Simply put, we make the volcano cooler. Brilliant, we know. The idea is to reduce the thermal energy trapped in the volcano's magma chambers. It's believed that Yellowstone releases around 70 percent of its heat via the hot springs found around Yellowstone Park. The remaining heat remains trapped and potentially dangerous as it builds. In theory, cooling off a volcano works in a similar manner to cooling off a room in your home, circulating thermal energy out with the aid of cooling pipes. It's essentially a massively complicated air conditioner, except it's for magma.
Unexpected side benefits are always nice
Air conditioners work by blowing air across chilled pipes in order to reduce the temperature in the room. These chilled pipes are cooled with compressed chemicals, whereas the world-saving pipes will be filled with cold water. The idea is pretty basic: drill down several miles (maybe we need Bruce Willis after all) and pump highly-pressurized cold water into the volcano and circulate the resulting hot water out, thus effectively transferring the thermal energy out.
NASA believes Yellowstone only needs about a 35 percent heat reduction to avert disaster. Such a system would have another benefit in addition to saving all of our lives: cheap electricity. "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," Wilcox told the BBC. So, a lower electric bill and saving the human race from utter devastation? Sounds good, sign us up.