What type of event do you imagine when envisioning the end of humanity? Aside from asteroids, you also might think of nuclear war, zombie viruses, or global natural disasters. Well, if you pictured a planet-wide natural disaster, NASA would agree with you—although it’s probably not the kind of natural disaster that first comes to mind.
The type of natural disaster that NASA has recently scrutinized is not a hurricane, an earthquake, or a tsunami: it’s a supervolcano eruption. It turns out that there are over twenty supervolcanoes on our planet, and even though they all seem to be presently dormant, it’s impossible to predict precisely when this will change in a big way. The last supervolcano eruption occurred approximately 26,500 years ago, at Lake Taupo in New Zealand. However, on geological timescales, this does not mean that the Earth is overdue for another cataclysmic eruption any day now. This is good news, because supervolcanoes have the potential to be far more catastrophic than virtually any other natural disaster, or even global nuclear war.
As a result of these facts, NASA is constantly planning and revising in order to try to avoid human extinction if at all possible. Brian Wilcox of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab is extremely aware of the risks that supervolcano eruptions pose: “I was a member of the Nasa Advisory Council on Planetary Defense which studied ways for NASA to defend the planet from asteroids and comets. I came to the conclusion during that study that the supervolcano threat is substantially greater than the asteroid or comet threat.”
The most well-known supervolcano is probably the one located at Yellowstone; it’s caldera measures approximately 34 miles by 45 miles, it last experienced a major eruption about 630,000 years ago, and it last experienced a minor eruption around 70,000 years ago. If it erupted in this age, hundreds of cubic miles of lava would spew and flow forth uncontrollably, which would destroy virtually everything around for 60 miles. Wyoming and parts of other states would be blanketed in approximately three feet of ash. What’s more, toxic gases, ash, and dust would cause a volcanic winter to occur—very similar to nuclear winter. Sunlight would be blocked for decades, centuries, or longer, and plants, animals, and humans would all be pushed to the brink of extinction or beyond.
As mentioned, the Yellowstone supervolcano is not expected to erupt within our lifetimes, but NASA is still brainstorming ways to avoid or delay its eruption for as long as possible. The best idea so far is to extract heat from the caldera in order to sap the volcano’s power; a side benefit would be that electricity could be generated from the heat which is collected. More specifically, engineers would need to drill into rock miles away from Yellowstone, pump water into the borehole, and wait for the water to return at superhot temperature in excess of 600 degrees Fahrenheit. In the end, the process would power turbines and geothermal systems which would generate large amounts of electricity.
As can be seen, none of this will be easy: the drilling and the geothermal plant will cost about $3.46 billion on their own. Of course, this would all be extremely beneficial over the long-term since it would create clean and relatively inexpensive energy for thousands and thousands of years. But regardless of the these benefits, it would be worth it just to prevent or delay the next supervolcano eruption, as Wilcox explains: “Keeping these volcanoes from devastating the human food supply and causing the deaths of 99 percent of all of humanity, that seems like a worthwhile thing to debate.”