This is a good example of a story that has morphed and changed as it gets passed from one paper to another. They all cite the same source, from the BBC but the reporters haven’t read the source. I think they just read each other. The science is actually rather interesting. But just about everything they say is the opposite of what the original story says.
This is the original story on the BBC:
This is what Fox News make of it (notorious for being somewhat unreliable)
There it is explained as a way to prevent an volcano from erupting by pumping vast amounts of water into the magma chamber to extract heat from it to stop it erupting.
This is what the Sun make of it - red top tabloid in the UK - notorious for its sensationalist reporting and often even fake news.
- Nasa’s risky plan to save the world from the Yellowstone volcano – which could trigger an eruption instead of stop it
They add as embellishment, “He also revealed that the methods the agency is considering to prevent one could also cause the volcano to go off by accident”.
They all cite the BBC as their source so I think it is fair to take that as the original for those stories. Though the paper itself is here.
So what does it actually say.
NOT A PLAN TO STOP A VOLCANO IN ITS TRACKS
They make it clear it’s a long term plan.
“Cooling Yellowstone in this manner would happen at a rate of one metre a year, taking of the order of tens of thousands of years until just cold rock was left. Although Yellowstone’s magma chamber would not need to be frozen solid to reach the point where it no longer posed a threat, there would be no guarantee that the endeavour would ultimately be successful for at least hundreds and possibly thousands of years. “
It could do nothing to stop a volcanic eruption underway. It would do almost nothing to reduce the chance of an eruption in the next century. But it could help our great great great … grandchildren many times removed to make sure they don’t face a supervolcano.
Now bear in mind, the next eruption of Yellowstone is almost certainly not going to be a supervolcano. It’s last supervolcano eruption was 640,000 years ago. Since then it has had 80 non explosive eruptions and the last 20 were just lava flows.
If it does erupt - and despite false media stories claiming it is about to erupt there is absolutely no sign of it erupting at present - then it will almost certainly be a lava flow that only affects Yellowstone national park.
So - with that background - the most likely time for a supervolcano eruption, if there is one at all, is hundreds of thousands of years from now or at least thousands of years from now. It might even have stopped altogether. With that background it makes sense to start on a scheme that may have no effect for thousands of years. It might be just what is needed to stop the next supervolcano eruption.
So - these are scientists who are thinking in the very long term indeed! He then goes on to talk about how it is likely to be hard to motivate politicians to spend $3.75 billion to stop an eruption centuries to thousands of years into the future. But if you can make money while doing it, that changes things. And so they come up with this idea of generating power from the magma chamber - so producing cheap electricity which is also clean, greenhouse friendly.
NOT RISKING AN ERUPTION AT ALL
They explain that if they drilled from above, it would risk an eruption. That is exactly why they would NOT DRILL FROM ABOVE. They aren’t stupid people, the plan is carefully thought out and sensible.
“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.”
Instead, the idea is to drill in from the supervolcano from the lower sides, starting outside the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park, and extracting the heat from the underside of the magma chamber. “This way you’re preventing the heat coming up from below from ever reaching the top of the chamber which is where the real threat arises,”
The Sun reports this as a plan to drill from above, risking an eruption. This is how journalists in the sensationalist tabloids especially often change “black” to “white” in their reports if it makes a more exciting story, so automatically probably that the journalists may not notice they did it, I think.
NOT GOING TO POUR WATER ON IT
Again this is something they say they WOULD NOT DO which the journalists are saying is part of their plan. Basically the journalists have turned black to white again.
One possibility is to simply increase the amount of water in the supervolcano. But from a practical perspective, it would likely be impossible to convince politicians to sanction such an initiative.
“Building a big aqueduct uphill into a mountainous region would be both costly and difficult, and people don’t want their water spent that way,” Wilcox says. “People are desperate for water all over the world and so a major infrastructure project, where the only way the water is used is to cool down a supervolcano, would be very controversial.”
They explain how their plan is different from that:
Instead Nasa have conceived a very different plan. They believe the most viable solution could be to drill up to 10km down into the supervolcano, and pump down water at high pressure. The circulating water would return at a temperature of around 350C (662F), thus slowly day by day extracting heat from the volcano. And while such a project would come at an estimated cost of around $3.46bn (£2.69bn), it comes with an enticing catch which could convince politicians to make the investment.
Note, though they say “drill down” there - they don’t mean drill down from above. They mean drill down and across, from the side, to the base of the magma chamber. The rest of the article makes this clear from context.
The idea is not for NASA to do this. Their budget is rather small. It’s not like the MOD. And $3.75 billion is a lot of money in anyone’s books. It would be a significant fraction of their planetary science budget for a decade for instance.
Instead it is a plan to encourage commercial companies to drill which would need incentives from the government. So of course politicians have to get behind this.
“Yellowstone currently leaks around 6GW in heaT. Through drilling in this way, it could be used to create a geothermal plant, which generates electric power at extremely competitive prices of around $0.10/kWh. 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.”
SUMMARY (SO FAR)
- It’s a scheme to build a power station on the flanks of the yellowstone
- It would cost $3.75 billion.
- It would provide low cost clean energy
- It would create jobs and and the geothermal companies would come up with the money - with incentives from the government. It would be a profitable investment for them.
- It is only possible with political support - so before this happens you’d get politicians talking about it to voters and discussions in Congress etc etc.
- There is no risk at all of it triggering an eruption. We understand how volcanoes work, and the scientists designed it to be safe.
- It will not stop an eruption now or in the next few decades
- It could stop a super volcano eruption or indeed a normal eruption too, centuries into the future.
I've based this on the BBC report.
For the original paper, which has some differences, and also goes into more detail about the possible ways it could go wrong, see here
The original paper actually ends by suggesting Long Valley Caldera (another potential supervolcano though less likely) as a better location to try out the idea than Yellowstone:
"While Yellowstone is the greatest supervolcano threat to the U.S. (and perhaps also to all of human civilization), there are two other supervolcanoes within the contiguous 48 states.These are the Long Valley Caldera near Mammoth Lakes CA, and the Valles Caldera nearLos Alamos, NM. Since Long Valley is located in a popular recreation and vacation housing area without national park status, it seems to be a likely candidate for an initial test of the system. Indeed there is already a geothermal power plant at Long Valley, the Casa Diablo plant operated by Ormat (Ormat Technologies, Inc., Reno NV). Being in population-rich California, it is also closer to a large customer base for increased electricity production capacity."
They go on to say that once they got this underway the same method could be used for all supervolcanoes.
“Such a plan could be potentially applied to every active supervolcano on the planet, and Nasa’s scientists are hoping that their blueprints will encourage more practical scientific discussion and debate for tackling the threat.”
“When people first considered the idea of defending the Earth from an asteroid impact, they reacted in a similar way to the supervolcano threat. People thought, ‘As puny as we are, how can humans possibly prevent an asteroid from hitting the Earth.’ Well, it turns out if you engineer something which pushes very slightly for a very long time, you can make the asteroid miss the Earth. So the problem turns out to be easier than people think. In both cases it requires the scientific community to invest brain power and you have to start early.
So - drawing an analogy with asteroid impacts. We now have ways to prevent asteroid impacts if we know about them long enough in advance. So - they are saying that ic we start early (though centuries before for supervolcanoes compared with a decade for an asteroid) - we can stop a supervolcano too.
The article was great so far, but the last sentence is embarrassing.
“But Yellowstone explodes roughly every 600,000 years, and it is about 600,000 years since it last exploded, which should cause us to sit up and take notice.”
This last sentence is invalid reasoning.
You get it so much with these kinds of things - and scientists use it too. I am sure he knows it is invalid reasoning too, if you were to ask him. He might well be embarrassed that they printed that and attributed it to his name.
I think they just fall into it naturally when trying to convince others to take them seriously, in conversation with reporters.
If he was to put that sentence into a paper the reviewer would strike it out and not let him publish it as it is just not true.
Unless it is part of a repeating cycle, e.g. like a geyser, then something that happens on average every 600,000 years doesn’t become “over due” after 600,000 years. Instead it means the chance of it happening in any given century is around 1 in 6,000. So - enough of a possibility to take care but hardly very likely.
It’s like throwing a fair dice. If you throw it ten times and no six appears - it is not “overdue a six”. The chance the next throw is a six still remains the same as ever, one chance in six.
Similarly even if it was 2 million years without an eruption, if the chance is 1 in 6,000 per century, it remains 1 in 6,000 for the next century, and it’s likely to be hundreds of thousands of years before the next event. That’s just how the maths works.
The last three major eruptions were 2.1 million years ago, 1.3 million years ago and 640,000 years ago. So the gaps between those eruptions were 800,000 years and then 660,000 years.
The average of the two intervals between the last three major past eruptions is 740,000 years and that’s the basis of the more often quoted figure of a 1 in 740,000 chance of an eruption per year - or 1 in 7,400 per century. But that’s not a very compelling argument.
Some scientists think that it may not erupt as a supervolcano again ever. They think it may be winding down in its activity.
At any rate there is no sign at all that such an eruption could be imminent.
"Scientists evaluate natural-hazard levels by combining their knowledge of the frequency and the severity of hazardous events. In the Yellowstone region, damaging hydrothermal explosions and earthquakes can occur several times a century. Lava flows and small volcanic eruptions occur only rarely—none in the past 70,000 years. Massive caldera-forming eruptions, though the most potentially devastating of Yellowstone’s hazards, are extremely rare—only three have occurred in the past several million years. U.S. Geological Survey, University of Utah, and National Park Service scientists with the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory (YVO) see no evidence that another such cataclysmic eruption will occur at Yellowstone in the foreseeable future. Recurrence intervals of these events are neither regular nor predictable.”
So what he said at the end of that article is just plain wrong. It’s a kind of “hyperbole” or exaggeration for effect I think, and is used often.
Of course it could be something that was lost in the interview, maybe Brian Wilcox was more cautious, said something like
“You could say we are overdue but of course we aren’t as it is just a random process”
and the journalist noted that down as
“We are overdue an eruption”.
Whatever the reason, it’s wrong. We are not overdue an eruption of any type.
And if we do get an eruption, this is what it is likely to be like:
Obsidian Cliff. - result of a lava flow 180,000 years ago. (USGS photograph by Robert Christiansen.)
There have been no lava flow eruptions for 70,000 years there, but these are likely to happen again in the future. (While with supervolcano eruptions they don’t know if it will have another one).
They say about them:
“Today, most of the landforms within the Yellowstone Caldera reflect the shapes of these young lava flows. Cliffs surrounding the Upper Geyser Basin near Old Faithful Geyser are the cooled steep flow fronts of once-slow-moving rhyolite lavas. Some narrow ridges and valleys on the Canyon-Norris road are corrugations on the surface of a 110,000-year-old rhyolite flow. These roughly concentric ridges formed as the thick, pasty lava slowly oozed northeastward, wrinkling its surface. Within the caldera, rivers and streams commonly occupy the gaps between individual lava flows, and springs emerge at the edges of flows.
“Any renewed volcanic activity at Yellowstone would most likely take the form of such mainly nonexplosive lava eruptions. An eruption of lava could cause widespread havoc in the park, including fires and the loss of roads and facilities, but more distant areas would probably remain largely unaffected.”
They say about a caldera forming eruption:
“If another large caldera-forming eruption were to occur at Yellowstone, its effects would be worldwide. Thick ash deposits would bury vast areas of the United States, and injection of huge volumes of volcanic gases into the atmosphere could drastically affect global climate. Fortunately, the Yellowstone volcanic system shows no signs that it is headed toward such an eruption. The probability of a large caldera-forming eruption within the next few thousand years is exceedingly low.”
When it says “would drastically affect global climate” they don’t mean a permanent change. Once the dust and gases settle out of the atmosphere it returns to normal, but the climate would be 10 C cooler for about a decade leading to prospects of widespread famine and need for farmers worldwide to adapt very rapidly to growing crops from cooler climates for that decade.
However - this is very very unlikely to happen with Yellowstone as there is no sign at all of a supervolcano eruption in the future and for something dramatic like that they would know a long time in advance with current knowledge of volcanoes.
There is currently no sign of any eruption about to happen there.
You do get hydrothermal explosions - a result of snowmelt seeping into the hot rocks. These are local in their effect and have happened in recent times. Most recent ones even in this century.
“The largest hydrothermal-explosion crater documented in the world is along the north edge of Yellowstone Lake in an embayment known as Mary Bay. This 1.5-mile (2.6 km)-diameter crater formed about 13,800 years ago and may have had several separate explosions in a short time interval. What specifically triggered these very large events is not firmly established, but earthquakes or a pressure release caused by melting glaciers or rapid changes in lake level may have been a significant factor.”
“Although large hydrothermal explosions are a feature of Yellowstone’s recent geologic history, most explosions in historical times have been relatively small and have left craters at most a few yards across. For example, in early 2003, a long linear fissure appeared on a hillside above Nymph Lake, north of Norris Geyser Basin, venting steam and throwing bits of rock onto the surrounding hillside. Although most hydrothermal explosions in the park are small, their remains can be noticed by observant visitors and attest to the nearly continuous geologic activity at Yellowstone.”
And - it is being intensively studied and scientists do of course notice changes in the magma chamber. That is normal and is the same for similar volcanoes worldwide.
When they report some minor change in the chambers - THIS DOES NOT MEAN YELLOWSTONE IS GOING TO ERUPT. It is normal for volcano magma chambers to change. But often these observations are misreported as an indication that it is about to erupt and amateur doomsday prophets often sieze on them and claim that every small change they observe is a sign that it is about to erupt. Don’t let them deceive you in this way. This is nonsense.
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