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Nasa reveals plan to prevent supervolcano eruption ‘greater than asteroid or comet threat’

Cost of project is in the region of £2.69bn and could generate geothermal energy

Fiona Keating
Monday 21 August 2017 12:34
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Tourists view the Morning Glory hot spring in the Upper Geyser Basin of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, on May 14, 2016. The distinctive colors of the hot spring is due to bacteria which survive in the hot water although its vivid color has changed from its original blue to yellow and green after an accumulation of coins and debris thrown by tourists
Tourists view the Morning Glory hot spring in the Upper Geyser Basin of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, on May 14, 2016. The distinctive colors of the hot spring is due to bacteria which survive in the hot water although its vivid color has changed from its original blue to yellow and green after an accumulation of coins and debris thrown by tourists

Scientists are working on strategies to prevent a supervolcano erupting which could have devastating effects on the world’s climate.

Nasa researchers believe that drilling into the base of one of the most dangerous supervolcanoes in the world, which is underneath Yellowstone National Park, could be the solution. High-pressure water jets would be pumped in to cool it down, releasing heat from the magma chamber and preventing it exploding.

However, drilling into a supervolcano has many potential dangers, says Brian Wilcox of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at the California Institute of Technology.

“If you drill into the top of the magma chamber and try and cool it from there, this would be very risky,” he told the BBC.

“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.”

Mr Wilcox said he believes “the supervolcano threat is substantially greater than the asteroid or comet threat.”

A supervolcano eruption could cause long-term effects to the planet, including worldwide starvation and the release of massive amounts of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere. The United Nations estimated that global food reserves would last just 74 days.

The biggest fear for volcanologists is wind-blown ash. "People who live upwind from eruptions need to be concerned about the big ones," said Larry Mastin, a USGS volcanologist.

Large eruptions give rise to umbrella clouds that push ash upwind and potentially over half the continent, Mr Mastin said in a Live Science report.

Major eruptions happen on average once every 100,000 years. The most recent supervolcanic eruption on the planet occurred 27,000 years ago at Taupo located at the midpoint of New Zealand's north island.

The US Geological Survey’s website states that Yellowstone will be eruption-free for centuries. However, Yellowstone explodes approximately on a 600,000 year cycle, says Mr Wilcox and “it is about 600,000 years since it last exploded.”

Nasa’s plan is to drill around 10km into Yellowstone and pump in water which would be slowly extracted. The cost of the project is in the region of £2.69bn. In future, a geothermal plant could be built, generating electric power.

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