This Side of the Pond – Nov. 23

By Sarah Pridgeon

I first discovered that Yellowstone is hiding a colossal volcano in my early twenties, when I was working for a magazine back in England for which I had been tasked with writing an article about “super-disasters”. That was a hairy experience, let me tell you – it’s hard to go home and make a nice cup of tea and a sandwich when you’ve spent your day finding out just how many plans your planet has made to annihilate you.

It was called, “The Truth About Armageddon,” and it was part of a series about the foibles of the green-blue speck of the galaxy we call home. For that article, I researched asteroids and hypernovae, super-tsunamis and biological warfare and, by the time I wrote the last sentence, was fairly well convinced that the end was long past nigh.

I suppose it’s a similar situation to self-diagnosing a light cough using only the internet – something else I confess to be guilty of. I once visited my doctor in a panic, thinking I had a rare form of deadly throat infection, only to be told I was suffering from heartburn.

In this case, too, exposure to the panicked souls of the web who spend their lives watching fault lines while wearing tinfoil hats was…not a good idea. And then I found out what was lurking under Yellowstone National Park and the terror really set in.

According to my research, you see, Yellowstone was long overdue its own light cough, which meant it was gearing up to blow any second. Seconds after it did so, said my tinfoil friends, magma would begin flying thousands of feet into the sky and this entire nation would be covered in several inches of boiling lava. Even on my own side of the pond, I’d be experiencing the kind of nuclear winter that’s awful for your lettuce patch.

I will admit to a slight pause in my excitement at moving to a whole new country when I glanced at a map and realized how close to the caldera I’d be putting myself. Fortunately, by that point, I had long since collected myself and realized how histrionic these so-called experts were being.

For one thing, scientists studying Europe’s supervolcanic cousin to Yellowstone, Campi Flegrei, no longer believe that the volcanic winter from its last eruption 39,000 years ago was what wiped out the Neanderthals. Evidence suggests that our long-extinct friends kept on keeping on for another 10,000 years, which is more than long enough to realize your carrots didn’t grow well this season.

For another, I now know that Yellowstone is one of the most actively monitored places on the planet, with seismometers, GPS sensors and satellite images all keeping a careful eye on the beast below. I feel less concerned that the first splutter of superheated rock will take me by surprise.

I’ve also learned that a supervolcano explosion is not the worst that can happen – the five largest mass extinctions known to us came at the same time as giant eruptions known as flood lavas, which carried on for hundreds of thousands of years. As far as I can tell, Yellowstone is not at the top of the danger list for a brain-bender of that persuasion.

But it was my heroes at NASA who really set my mind at rest when, recently, they revealed a proposal to deal with the issue of hot rock. Apparently, while they were looking into ways to defend the planet from a pesky asteroid that might think to head our way, they came to the conclusion that supervolcanoes were a much bigger threat to human health.

I can see why: I’m told there are 19 supervolcanoes on this globe aside from the one that’s here on our doorstep and there’s an eruption every 100,000 years. When faced with one of Mother Nature’s toys that’s this terrifyingly swollen in size, what can you possibly do to reset the clock?

Cool it down, is the answer. NASA believes that extracting a third of the heat from the magma chamber would render Yellowstone as docile as a kitten. The best way to do this, they posit, is to drill down ten kilometers into the volcano and pump high-pressured water into the hole.

Slowly but surely, the circulating water would leech warmth from the chamber. That heat, in turn, could be used in a geothermal plant, giving Wyoming yet another entry on its list of energy sources.

Economic diversity on top of safety from magma? Count me in.

It wouldn’t be a speedy process, of course. NASA estimates that only a meter of the volcano could be cooled each year, so it would take literally thousands of years to get the results from this particular experiment.

But every year of cooling would presumably be a year without an eruption, which is encouraging – particularly as Yellowstone is thought to be on a 600,000 year cycle and it’s been about 600,000 years since its last tantrum. The younger version of me, who once shook in her shoes while reading about the carpet of ash that would probably have covered the planet by the end of the week, thinks it’s got to at least be worth a try.