How To Stop Supervolcanoes From Destroying Humanity (And Make A Profit)
Yellowstone is a beautiful place. Breathtaking views, majestic mountains, lush forests, colorful geysers. It almost makes you forget about the giant magma chamber underneath and the fact that one day it will explode with enough power to make the combined might of all our nuclear weapons seem like a not particularly impressive belch by comparison. And it’s far from the only supervolcano on Earth. We know of at least 20 such places around the world, including Campi Flegrei, just nine miles away from Naples, Italy, and Lake Toba in Sumatra, which once almost wiped out humanity. Or maybe not, the jury is still kind of out on that.
Each eruption has the potential to create a decade-long global disaster and kill tens, if not hundreds of millions of people thanks to a combination of pyroclastic flows, ash, and lava, which will contaminate the air with toxic dust, ruin our critical infrastructure, and trigger a volcanic winter that will kill, or severely stunt harvests around the world. If one of these monstrous things decides to blow its top, there’s nothing we can do but duck, cover, and hope for the best, right? How do you stop natural disasters that scarred the planet so much that we find traces of their wrath millions of years after the ash has settled?
Well, that was the conventional wisdom until engineers from NASA came up with a plan to keep supervolcanoes from erupting at full power and make a whole lot of extremely cost-effective geothermal energy in the process. The idea is fairly simple: stop heat from building up and ratcheting up pressure in the magma chamber under the caldera, the crater left after the volcano’s previous full strength eruption. Now, you can’t just pour a whole lot of cold water into a few bore holes and call it a day because that’s impractical. But you can recirculate water at high pressure and produce cheap and plentiful energy from the steam that will be shot back at high speed.
Well, technically speaking, it won’t be steam. Under the immense pressure in the magma chamber, the water will remain liquid but superheated to about 600° F and turned to steam on its way back up as the pressure drops. It will then hit turbines and generate electricity. This is pretty much the same way nuclear reactors work, only instead of superheating water by breaking apart atoms, we’re using nothing more than our planet’s natural heat. Iceland has been using a similar strategy to generate more than a quarter of its energy needs from its volcanoes.
With an investment of about $3.5 billion, the geothermal plants built using this method could generate electricity for $0.10 per kWh, or kilowatt-hour, which is about 2 cents below the average price Americans pay for electricity. They’d be able to recoup their costs and make a profit pretty quickly since the power source for generating the electricity they sell will be going strong for a very long time. And there will be the added bonus of cooling down a supervolcano that could wipe out the vast majority of the United States, triggering a global depression in its immediate aftermath.
Of course there are two catches. The first is that you can’t drill directly into the caldera then pump water at high pressure because that might fracture it and trigger an eruption. Not a cataclysmic one, mind you, but bad enough to damage the geothermal infrastructure you just set up. Instead, you have to drill at an angle to make sure your tunnel is below the magma chamber. While it’s not the simplest and easiest thing to do, we’ve done far more complicated drilling before and there are perfectly viable angles of attack available to the crews doing the work. They’d just need to be slow and cautious.
The other catch is that it could take hundreds, if not thousands of years of ongoing operation to cool Yellowstone enough to no longer pose a threat. But that’s actually not as big of a deal as it sounds. Supervolcanic eruptions happen on scales of many thousands of years, so taking a few hundred to a few thousand years to prevent one is actually very efficient.
Looking at the geologic record, it takes between 600,000 and 800,000 years for enough pressure to build at Yellowstone for a truly massive blast. Campi Flegrei, which is the most active supervolcano, took 13,000 years between its last two major eruptions. Lake Toba has been quiet for roughly 75,000 years. In other words, the odds of these disasters happening in time spans shorter than millennia are minuscule anyway since it takes a lot of energy to trigger an eruption, meaning we have plenty of time to cool them by tapping into their innards for cheap, clean thermal energy.
And if anything, from a business perspective, we want them to take a long time to cool since it will ensure efficient generation of electricity. Don’t worry though, it’ll still be more than hot enough in these monsters’ bellies to make these geothermal plants cost-effective long after they’ve been neutered as global threats, provided we would still be using geothermal energy that far into the future to help meet our needs.
Looking at the price tag, this would actually be cheap enough for a private effort with the right permits, creating tens of thousands of jobs and running much cleaner, more profitable power plants without any subsidies. It would be good business with the added side-effect of helping to preserve humanity as we know it by making the world a slightly cleaner, safer place. Many companies out there have the cash to undertake this project ten times over just sitting in the bank, waiting for the perfect opportunity to invest it into a new, exciting, money-generating venture.
While normally science writers are professional wet blankets when it comes to discussions about ambitious geo-engineering projects, this idea is a rare exception. It would make little sense not to take it seriously, even though in their typical restraint the scientists and engineers behind the proposal called it a “pie in the sky” idea. There’s nothing even remotely outlandish about it. No new technology needs to be invented. No new research needs to be done other than where best to drill. The project is very affordable. And the payoff is very favorable in the short term, and beyond advantageous in the end.
However, it’s pretty clear why scientists at NASA would refer to any project for the long term good of the planet as currently unrealistic. Their next potential director, Jim Bridenstine, is a climate change denialist and one of the many Republicans crusading to gut NASA’s Earth science programs under the logic that if you call climate research “politicized” and then refuse to do it, climate change is just going to resolve itself. Looking at a likely slash and burn of all the programs from which this geo-engineering idea came with their potential new leader’s scientific ignorance and environmental myopia, even the most modest proposals appear to be destined for snide dismissal.
You don’t have to be an economist to see that thousands of green energy jobs in plants that would run for centuries are a much better return on your investment than letting half the planet starve after a supervolcano explodes and takes out some major economic players for a short term gain on some trendy stock market fad. It’s not like those investments will be worth much when the people who would honor them are buried under half a mile of ash and volcanic dust. A healthier Earth populated by a human civilization that isn’t trying to rebuild itself from a global natural disaster offers far more opportunities for a future economy. Any plan that helps get us survive and get there, especially at a very modest cost, should be strongly encouraged.