No, NASA Isn’t Going to Drill to Stop Yellowstone from Erupting

By Erik Klemetti | August 31, 2017 8:26 am
Grand Prismatic Spring, one of the geothermal features of the Yellowstone Caldera. Photo by Brocken Inaglory/Wikimedia CC-by-SA 3.0

Grand Prismatic Spring, one of the geothermal features of the Yellowstone Caldera. Photo by Brocken Inaglory/Wikimedia CC-by-SA 3.0

Let’s cut to the chase: The purported NASA plan to “defuse” Yellowstone is pure science fiction.

OK, now that we have that out of the way, let’s get into the details of the numerous articles that have jumped all over what might best be termed a “thought experiment” by scientists at NASA. Yellowstone, the massive caldera in the middle of North America, is definitely a volcanic threat. Is it a high volcanic threat? Not as much as other, much more active volcanoes in the United States. However, it has produced some really massive eruptions in its history—well, three times in its history dating back to ~2.1 million years ago.

There have also been many more small eruptions over that time period, which is much more typical of activity at the restless caldera. Basalt and rhyolite lava flows and domes have occurred frequently and the most recent activity at the Yellowstone caldera was relatively small rhyolite dome eruptions about ~70,000 years ago.

Those big eruptions—the Lava Creek at ~640,000 years ago, the Mesa Falls at ~1.3 million years ago and the Huckleberry Ridge at ~2.1 million years ago—were huge. The Huckleberry Ridge tuff was the largest of these explosive eruptions, producing over 2,400 cubic kilometers of volcanic debris that spread over much of the continent. How big is 2,400 cubic kilometers? That’s about the same as filling and emptying Lake Erie five times!

Yet, although the caldera has these massive eruptions, the likelihood of such an eruption is very low. They are such uncommon events that we don’t even know if they happen with any cyclicality. A pattern defined by three points is not one you want to hang your hat on, but that is what we have at Yellowstone.

There are no signs right now that Yellowstone could be heading to any sort of gigantic eruption—in fact, there is little sign of any time of eruption. Sure, there are all the noises of a “restless caldera” such as the hot springs, geysers, ground deformation, earthquakes, but in a place where we know there is some amount of partially molten magmatic goo down there, this is to be expected. However, there is little evidence that that magma is in a state that could erupt, and it’s likely the process to make it eruptable would take much longer than a human lifetime to transpire. If you read otherwise, unless it is from the US Geological Survey, be skeptical.

So, why is NASA worried? I don’t think they actually are (and if you look at the article that started this on the BBC, you’ll see exactly that). Rather, just like pondering what to do about a potential asteroid impact, they wanted to consider if anything could be done if Yellowstone started to show signs of a massive eruption. Really, the short answer is no, you can’t do anything, at least with our current technology and understanding. However, being scientists, they speculated and considered a number of options: (1) releasing pressure and (2) cooling the magma.

That’s where we get into science fiction realms. The magma at Yellowstone is stored at depths of at least ~8-10 kilometers (over 5 miles). If you want to drill into it to release pressure or pump water, you would need to drill that deep and right now, our deepest drill holes just barely make it that deep with holes that are less than a foot across. So, to a magma body holding thousands of cubic kilometers of magma, that’s like the tiniest pin prick.

We aren’t even close to the technology to do this easily in a volcanically unstable area. A massive eruption would have profound climate impacts for decades, but note: There are no identified mass extinctions related to giant Yellowstone eruptions. Even during the Toba eruption in Indonesia ~74,000 years ago (the last truly massive eruption), humans survived the local and global impacts of such a blast.

Second, the volume of water needed to cool such a large magma body would be enormous. Where would the water come from? Literally, you would need to pump the volume of a Great Lake into the magmatic system to even make a dent. Again, science fiction (and a resource impossibility at this point). And even if we did have the water, there is likely as great a chance that the water could make the eruption worse. The heightened explosively of the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland was caused by the addition of water (from melting ice), so unless you get the balance just right, you can make the eruption more violent rather than quench it.

Now, the NASA “plan” tries to get around that problem by circulating water to keep things cool. This is something like your car’s radiator, which moves heat out by sending coolant around the engine and bringing it to the front to cool down again. However, this assumes that no new heat is being added, such as new magma from deep below that would be fueling the potential eruption. In the short-term, we might get one heck of a geothermal power plant, but in the end, it would likely not be enough.

When all is said and done, a massive eruption at Yellowstone, or any other caldera for that matter, isn’t a question we should answer by trying to stop it. Instead, we need to build resilience into our society to survive after such an event. This means things like seed vaults, international agreements to evacuate and emigrate volcanic refugees, water protection measures. A lot less sexy than, “Let’s pump water into a magma chamber!” but the sort of stuff that helps ensure survival rather than trying to hit the mid-court (if your basket is, say, in the orbit of Mars) shot.

So, sure, we can come up with plans that are akin to Bruce Willis flying shuttles to asteroids to save the planet. In reality, there is almost no chance that we will need to deal with a massive Yellowstone eruption and if we did, there’s an even smaller chance we would ever employ such a plan to “stop” the eruption. NASA isn’t going to start drilling. It is a fun science fiction short story where we somehow make the eruption worse, but it isn’t any sort of real plan to save the planet from Yellowstone.

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  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    NASA must inject a billion gallons of water into a Yellowstone magma chamber if and only if all NASA bureaucrats are present at the ceremony when the Start button is pushed.

    Inject a billion gallons of liquid carbon dioxide into a Yellowstone magma chamber to mineralize it and save the world. None of that power plant stuff! Produce eco-carbon dioxide with a giant reverse photosynthesis project, the Artificial Un-Leaf.

    filling and emptying Lake Erie five times” Empty Lake Superior 1/5 of a time, Officially 1/50 of the problem. No problem. Think like an asstronaught. BLEVE!

    • Erik Bosma

      H2O increases its volume by 1600 times when heated instantly. We used to throw coffee cups full of water in the molten bath at my old steel mill and it was just like throwing a grenade.

      • Erik Bosma

        Scared the crap out of new guys.

      • Terry

        @Erik Bosma – Thank you. Finally, a rational comment to this article. My take is that Rocky is providing cover for the screwballs at N(Never)A S(Straight) A(Answer). Yellowstone lake should be drained. Water into magma chambers is what creates super volcano’s. By the way Rocky, the drill technology already exists to go well into Yellowstone’s magma. Think Deep Water Horizon x 1,000,000. They were down > 6 mi.

  • Rem Brandt

    Putting water deep in Yellowstone would make some great youtube footage.As in how to make a pressurecooker bomb really huge! By nature that’s not gonna happen any time soon.So yeah please do that! Must be blasts of fun watching that.

  • mjkbk

    Sorry, but the poorly-written BBC headlines would lead ANYONE to believe this is a current threat/project, not a “thought experiment”.

    Auntie Beeb has a lot to answer for. Thanks “Auntie”, for scarin’ the bejeezus out of a lot of people……and for bringing the usual Roddenberry Sci-Fi worshippers out of the journo woodwork. Good job. Not.

    • davidsstrail

      The headline wasn’t great but it was the NYPost fault for A. Writing a story based on one quote and B. For not reading the article at all.

      • mjkbk

        Nice try to put all of this on the NY Post, but their article was a REPRINT of an August 24 story from Oz’s News.com.au.

        And the Beeb did INDEED start this whole thing with their item (and deliberately scary headline) dated August 17.

        • davidsstrail

          Guess I missed where they said it was a repost.

    • Erik Bosma

      I think newspaper editors sometimes like to check on their readership to see if they’re paying attention (or how stupid they are).

  • Dan Higgins

    Thanks Captain Obvious. Only fake science buffs paid any attention to the original story.

  • OWilson

    About what you’s expect from a government news agency, on a slow news day.

    Akin to those photos of Stalin swimming in the Volga, Mao swimming in the Yangtse, and Kim Il Sung shooting 5 holes in one his first time out at golf.

    Fake News is bad, Fake Government News is a waste of money too!

  • GORT

    Okay, I’ll bite. While true that our current drilling technology is woefully inadequate for any rational attempt to relieve pressure, averting a mega-eruption might be achieved by discharging a series of repeated nuclear explosions in multiple sites strategically located around the caldera, such that a large area would be excavated by the blasts and by vaporization, thinning the crust enough to allow the buried magma to ooze out rather than explosively exit. Firing off multiple nukes would loft a sizeable amount of dust and radiation into the atmosphere, but nothing that would compare to an actual mega-eruption. This very drastic action would only be taken if a massive eruption is indisputably imminent. With proper planning, execution, and enough time for orderly evacuations downwind, this approach may be our only hope. Although no mass extinctions have occurred in tandem with prior eruptions, we should not assume that it cannot happen.

    On a serious note, I hope this thought experiment was conducted on NASA personnel’s personal time and not our dime.

    [==*==]

    • Erik Bosma

      A slowed down eruption can be worse than a violent eruption, I would think. look at Hawaii. Magma would just ooze and ooze and ooze eventually covering hundreds if not thousands of square km. It would be safe on the west coast because the Rockies are all up hill but the rest of the continent is down hill.

      • GORT

        In the past, a number of explosive eruptions on volcanic islands have completely obliterated the islands – Krakatoa, for example. I would argue that slowly oozing eruptions, even though they last much longer, would tend to have a less devastating overall impact. Given that the Earth’s average temperature can be dramatically lowered by a single large explosive eruption, sometimes for years, a slow “oozer” starts to look even better. If nothing else, it gives people plenty of time to evacuate.

        [==*==]

  • Tom Barker

    Ha vindicated again. I was right when I read the first statement.

  • Charles Travis

    Visualize – shake a cola, then pop the cap to relieve the pressure; now visualize – drill a hole into, or create a void adjacent to a magma body to relieve the pressure.

    • Erik Bosma

      The tiny diameter of any hole we could drill would quickly plug up. It would be like pricking your soda pop can with a nano metre sized pin hole.

      • Charles Travis

        Sounds like what BP said before their well blew out in the Gulf of Mexico.

  • adburger

    Tap it for geothermal power!

  • Doc Tyler

    Thanks for clearing that up.
    Trying to drill into Yellowstone is a really stupid idea at the moment, most likely trying to stop it would set it off.

    • BraveNewWhirled

      Yeah. Sort of like trying to pop a zit that isn’t ready.

  • Marvin Shepherd

    You realize it’s not just three eruptions. Over the last 17 million years it has had at least 125 massive, caldera forming eruptions. Only three occurred within the current bounderies of Yellowstone National Park.

  • J Douglas Sangster

    Some quick thought as I’m off to Iceland tomorrow..

    1. The author needs to present a complete history of the Yellowstone hot spot to be taken as a serious scientist. There are 20+ (I forget the precise number) calderas caused by the “Yellowstone magma plume” with the oldest located around the Washington-Idaho border. The past 3 happen to be in the Yellowstone area. These calderas follow the Snake River plain and are well mapped.

    2. Drilling into the magma. Moving the earth’s orbit outward to reduce global warming has an infinitely greater chance of success. (PS, I’ve participated in some world-class drilling projects as a geophysicist; also, I’m not really serious about our ability to adjust the earth’s orbit). To “Doc Tyler”, Does an elephant scream when bitten by a mosquito?

    3. The “Yellowstone magma plume” will very likely produce another massive caldera in the next 25,000 years. Where? is the major question. Extrapolating it’s long term track places the logical next caldera under the Absaroka batholith. This is a classic case of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. My own thoughts are that the plume blinks and will be forced to the north by the batholith resulting in the caldera appearing around present day Columbus, MT. in 20,000 + years.

    4. I’m willing to take bets!

  • Uttrediay

    Well, they aren’t thinking of injecting water into the magma chamber, the idea is to drain off some heat by drilling cooling wells down to a safe distance above it. But of course, spending billions to prevent disaster is not how things work. The billions are spent repairing damage after the disaster happens. That’s how things work.

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Rocky Planet

Rocky Planet covers all the geologic events that made and will continue to shape our planet. From volcanoes to earthquakes to gold to oceans to other solar systems, I discuss what is intriguing and illuminating about the rocks beneath our feet and above our heads. Ever wonder what volcanoes are erupting? How tsunamis form and where? What rocks can tell us about ancient environments? How the Earth might change in the future? You'll find these answers and more on Rocky Planet.
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