Supervolcanoes – A Looming Threat to Humanity

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The world is a big and beautiful place full of wonders and things that are of great benefit to us humans. But it is also replete with things that are harmful to us, threaten our safety and sometimes our existence. Mother Nature is a beautiful but sometimes scary aspect of our lives on this planet.

Threats to humanity have evolved over a period of time. But as technological advancements occur, many threats have been tackled and means of addressing them discovered. Threats, therefore, gradually become small and addressable.

Recently, a scientist working on NASA’s Advisory Council on Planetary Defence, Brian Wilcox, discovered something disturbing about our planet that may have been overlooked up until now and not accorded as much importance and immediate response as it deserves. It is called a super-volcano and it is presently expected to be lying quietly underneath many of the most beautiful places in the world including United States of America’s Yellowstone National Park.

A supervolcano is an unusually large volcano having the potential to produce an eruption with major effects on global climate and ecosystem.

The Yellowstone National Park is known for its wildlife and its many geothermal features, especially geysers, one of its most popular features. It has been calculated that the supervolcano that lies under the Yellowstone National Park explodes after every 600,000 years and this year it has been approximately 600,000 years since its first eruption. This threat coupled with fear is increasing with the passage of every single day.

Adding to these speculations, the recent series of earthquakes in the region of Yellowstone National Park have further raised concerns about an apocalyptic scenario. It is also feared that if this volcano erupts, the whole area will be covered in layers of dust and smoke in the atmosphere, thereby blocking the sun rays and giving an effect of a nuclear war. This could ultimately result in the death of all living beings in that region due to starvation.

NASA has been working to save the world from the horrors of Yellowstone. It is believed that there is a giant chamber of magma underneath the Yellowstone National Park. This magma heats up so quickly that it takes only water to cool itself. This water seeps into the magma through the cracks in the earth and exchanges the heat of that material. This heated water then returns to the surface due to which hot springs are a common phenomenon throughout the Yellowstone National Park.

Having this thought in mind, NASA scientists started researching ways to cool this magma down. Numerous ideas were put forward, one of which was to flood the plateau with water. This idea was almost impossible for its impracticality as it would have been a daunting task to convince the politicians to use an enormous amount of water for this purpose.

Taking the research further, scientists came up with the idea of drilling a hole of about 10 kilometers depth into the volcano and channeling high-pressure water into it. This high-pressure water, when pumped in, gets heated up to 662 F. Ultimately this heated water will rise again and reach the surface.

The most convincing aspect of this plan is the generation of electricity using this heated water. This electricity could be made available in the market at an extremely competitive price. Brian Wilcox said about the idea:

“Through drilling in this way, it could be used to create a geothermal plant, which generates electric power. 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.”

But with this idea came numerous dangers as well. Since dealing with the volcanic material is itself a daunting, challenging and a risky task, therefore the same involved a lot of risks as well.

“The most important thing with this is to do no harm. 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,” said Wilcox.

But the same idea was modified keeping in view the hazards attached to it. The idea was to plan and execute drilling into the sides of the volcano. The heat from the surroundings and beneath the magma will be transferred through conduction into the water which can then be further utilized for electricity generation.

All these ideas of saving the world from supervolcanoes are in no way a quick fix to the problem. The process may take hundreds of years if not thousands to cool the volcano down to a point where it will no longer be volatile. NASA’s efforts to serving and save humanity are nevertheless commendable. The only immediate benefit of this whole exercise is the generation of electricity.

The same idea can be applied to many other supervolcanoes around the globe. Awareness about geothermal electricity, how it is produced and its benefits to mankind will encourage more people to venture into this avenue of energy production. This source of electricity is enough to power up the entire Earth for hundreds and thousands of years. And while we all benefit from this mind blowing resource waiting to be harnessed, a dangerous supervolcano is being cooled in the process. The process will definitely take hundreds of years but if no action is taken and these supervolcanoes erupt, all life will vanish from this planet as we know it.

Though hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and the likes are extremely dangerous and pose a viable threat to our world, they are pretty much localized and do not cause harm over a very large radius. But the eruption of supervolcanoes could be the end of all life. Therefore, NASA’s efforts, however small as compared to the looming threat, are a step in the right direction.

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