As if a global pandemic of the coronavirus weren’t enough, some notable geologic events have also made headlines around the world, from earthquakes in Idaho and Utah to volcanic eruptions around the Pacific “ring of fire.”
It seems that any time calamity is in the headlines, often whether it has to do with the earth’s plumbing or otherwise, talk online inevitably turns to the Yellowstone supervolcano. Fear mongers are starting to believe that this series of recent earthquake activity in the US. However, Mike Poland, the scientist-in-charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory (YVO) has gone on record stating that these earthquakes are not tied to the Yellowstone supervolcano but are actually related to mountain-building processes in the western US.
The Yellowstone Volcano, also known as the Yellowstone Caldera, is a supervolcano located in the National Park of the same name, in the states of Wyoming and Montana, US. The Yellowstone Volcano is one of the largest volcanic areas in the world. The park contains about half of the Earth’s geothermal features and about 60% of all the world’s geysers.
In 2017, NASA conducted a study to determine the feasibility of preventing the supervolcano located at Yellowstone National Park from erupting by drilling into its hydrothermal system. They named this plan, “Defending Human Civilisation from Supervolcanic Eruptions”.
NASA’s plan is to drill a ring around the magma chamber of the Yellowstone caldera, then begin circulating water, gradually moving closer to the centre. This would hypothetically release pressure from the magma plume causing the magma chamber to cool by 35%, which they believed would be enough to forestall such an incident. The circulating water would also release heat at the surface, possibly in a way that could be used as a geothermal power source. If enacted, the plan would cost about $3.46 billion.
The last supereruption of the Yellowstone volcano, the Lava Creek eruption (approximately 640,000 years ago), ejected approximately 240 cubic miles (1,000 km3) of rock, dust and volcanic ash into the atmosphere.
Some people believe that NASA’s cooling method will not be enough and more will need to be done to protect the world from Yellowstone. They feel we need more research into ways to minimise the risk posed by supervolcanos like that at Yellowstone. In fact, according to Brian Wilson of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a completed project might trigger, instead of preventing, an eruption
Dr Luca Siena, who is also a professor at the department of geology and petroleum geology at Aberdeen University said: “We have to do much more than what we are doing now to try and prevent a supervolcanic eruption. These volcanoes are going to do something one day – and this could be in 100 years, in 1,000 years, or even 10,000 years. We expect still to be on the Earth in 10,000 years and if we don’t do something to decrease the stress of this volcano, we won’t be able to survive on the surface of the Earth. It’s not a problem that we may experience tomorrow, in one year or 100 years but it is surely a problem that, if we don’t tackle it now, it could be too late.”
The supervolcano that is the Yellowstone caldera was formed during the last three big events – the Huckleberry Ridge eruption 2.1 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption 1.3 million years ago and as mention earlier the Lava Creek eruption approximately 630,000 years ago.
Yellowstone Park geologist Jefferson Hungerford also believes that NASA’s idea isn’t going to work. He stated “We as humans don’t have the capacity at this moment to stop a big volcano from erupting. How would we stop an eruption? The underlying premise here is to take the energy out of the system – that energy being heat – and we can’t do that right now.”
Supervolcanos are like the supervillains of the geologic world, as stories of their looming threat grow ever more exaggerated. But here’s an important caveat about supervolcanoes that most people commonly overlook: Just because a volcano has had a super-eruption once or even twice in its past doesn’t mean its future eruptions will be just as big.
Over the years there have been many unsupported claims that the supervolcano is “overdue” an eruption. Fears that earthquake activity (as well as full moons, asteroids, comets and just about anything else you can think of) will set off Yellowstone have been with us for years.
According to the United States Geological Survey, While such an eruption in the distant future is possible, the probability of it happening in the next few thousand years is “exceedingly low,” So we can all sleep better tonight knowing a supervolcano isn’t going to end our world anytime soon, if ever.
What’s most important to keep in mind about modern eruptions is that agencies around the world are keeping a close watch on supervolcanoes like Yellowstone, monitoring their every tremor and magma-laden belch. Volcanoes provide some notice of pending eruption and modern equipment helps scientists take their pulse with more accuracy than ever before. So while a super-eruption in the near future is exceedingly unlikely, these agencies will be the first to know and alert the public if one ever becomes imminent.
But who knows, nature is a funny beast so watch this space for more updates.