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Could We Erupt Yellowstone on Purpose? | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Callum Janes
What if we could erupt Yellowstone at will? Join us... and find out!

In this video, Unveiled takes a closer look at the Yellowstone Supervolcano to ask; could an eruption ever be triggered by design?? Could the volcano ever be used as a weapon? Or might we even manipulate it for positive reasons, to prevent it from ending the world..?
Transcript

Could We Erupt Yellowstone on Purpose?


It can feel as though the planet is creaking with doomsday possibilities these days. An asteroid could crash down from space to end civilization; war could break out with a nuclear winter setting in; or even an ancient, deadly pathogen could infect Earth once again, released back into the open via melting permafrost. But there’s one lurking, potential disaster that arguably rises above all others. A supervolcano in the heart of America, and one that some predictions claim is ready to blow… while there are other theories that humans might not even wait for nature to take its course.

This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; could we erupt Yellowstone on purpose?

The Yellowstone Caldera – aka, the Yellowstone supervolcano – can be found in the Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA. And while it isn’t the only supervolcano on Earth, it is by far the most well-known. The site has seen at least three major eruptions in its relatively recent history (geologically speaking) with one around 2.1 million years ago, another 1.3 million years ago, and another 640,000 years ago. Famously, and partly based on the gaps between those previous eruptions, there are predictions that Yellowstone could go again, soon. We’re reportedly within a window (a wide window, admittedly) where if the patterns of volcanism continue, the caldera will blow. And, if and when that happens, if humans are around to see it, we’re in for something spectacular, but also (potentially) truly apocalyptic.

Were Yellowstone to erupt with its full force, we’re talking masses of volcanic material ejected up to twenty miles into the sky; everywhere for at least the surrounding fifty miles covered in lava; an incomparably massive, burning and choking ash cloud surging all over America; worldwide acid rain; global agricultural ruin; a long volcanic winter; total climate chaos for everyone; and literally years (maybe decades) before Earth gets itself back to anything close to normal conditions. In the worst, worst case scenario, it’s complete devastation, and a scenario the like of which humankind would struggle to survive. So, with that in mind, might there be a way for us to gain some control over Yellowstone? To dictate when (and how severely) it erupts? And if that were possible, then is there also a danger that the caldera could ever be targeted for nefarious reasons, too?

The main thing to consider is the sheer power we’re dealing with here. While some predictions are speculation, it’s generally said (and calculated) that a Yellowstone eruption would release around 1,000 cubic kilometres (or 240 cubic miles) worth of hot and toxic material. The event would be triggered by a massive build-up of pressure in an also incomparably large magma chamber, about five miles below the surface. There should be warning signs before the final blast, including a dramatic increase in earthquake activity around the volcano, and a literal rising and falling of the land as the magma churns underneath. And when it does go, the energy release would far, far outstrip that of humanity’s most destructive weapons.

When it comes to comparing atomic and hydrogen bombs to the total output of Yellowstone, the predicted numbers can wildly vary… but the bombs are always comfortably beaten. As devastating as we know the atomic bomb to be, when the magma chamber breaks free at Yellowstone it will do so with thousands of times (perhaps hundreds of thousands of times) more power. One way to think about our title question, then, is that we would need a lot of nukes to purposefully push Yellowstone into action. So many nukes, in fact, that just trying to set the volcano off would constitute a major Armageddon event in itself – and even then, Yellowstone would likely remain unmoved. It’s not, then, believed that just one isolated explosion (or even many) would ever be enough, avalanche-like, to start the end of days.

One isolated asteroid strike, however, could be a different matter. Watch out for our follow up video on “what if an asteroid hit Yellowstone?” for an in-depth look… but for now we can say that this scenario could be carnage. The asteroid that did for the dinosaurs is thought to have brought with it multiple billions of times the energy of a nuclear bomb. So, if we fast forward to a hypothetical time in the future of our species, where controlling asteroids is possible, at something like a Kardashev Type 2.5… then it might also be possible to deliberately erupt Yellowstone. Were an ill-meaning force to crash a big enough rock from space right on top of it, perhaps timing their assault to coincide with a period of rising pressure beneath the volcano… then perhaps it could be done. Although, again, the arrival of such an asteroid period would already be enough to induce the apocalypse on its own, before Yellowstone even got involved.

As frightening as all this can feel, however, might there be a way to manipulate Yellowstone ourselves, but for positive and advantageous reasons instead? According to one proposal by NASA, there could be. News of the plan first broke back in 2017, and in theory it sounds like quite a simple fix. NASA scientists essentially want to cool Yellowstone off. To do this, they propose drilling a few miles down from the caldera surface, to gain side-access into the magma chamber. Next, water would be pumped into the chamber, circulated, and brought back to ground level. The returning water would be incredibly hot, but it will have also taken a small amount of heat away from the volcano. Repeat the process over a long period of time – as in, over a couple thousand years, by some predictions – and eventually the chamber should be cooled enough that it won’t ever blow again. It’s like the volcano will have been placed on mute.

The plan gets even better, though, as NASA suggests that the returning, super-hot water could then be used to fuel power plants. Back on top of the volcano, we’d build numerous geothermal power facilities, to ultimately harvest Yellowstone for our own energy needs. Were this to happen, the volcano will have been transformed from a specter of doom into a well of hope, in what would surely be one of the most ingenious tech projects that humankind had ever seen. But there are potential problems, too. First, there’s a predicted cost upwards of $3.5 billion to make the plan a reality. A huge number, and a really hard sell for funding. But second, and most concerning of all, while the idea works on paper… there’s a reasonable chance that it could go very wrong. To the point that drilling down into the magma chamber could even trigger accidentally the eruption that we’d have been hoping to stop. The threat level during the drilling would potentially be higher than it would even be were we to drop bombs onto the site… because by drilling into the volcano (rather than pummelling the surface) it’s as though we’d be tickling its underbelly, goading it to bite back.

Ultimately, then, over the years with Yellowstone we’ve seen various predictions, speculations, plans, and theories put forward. Various attempts by humankind to make sense of an all-out monster of the natural world. And it’s easy to see why Yellowstone is a big concern, because an eruption would spell disaster like we’ve never seen before. But there are reasons not to worry, as well. Namely, short of a seriously sustained nuclear attack on the place, or a purposefully redirected asteroid strike (both of which are unlikely for various reasons) it’s hugely unlikely that humanity could ever do anything to blow Yellowstone on purpose.

And so, we’re back to just letting nature take its course, and hoping that there’s no eruption now or in the near future. And again, there are reasons to feel good. Based on the timeline of past eruptions, it may well be the case that Yellowstone is “due to erupt again”, as is so often reported… but, really, the chances of it happening next week, next year, in the next one hundred years, or even in the next one thousand, are still said to be extremely small. Most projections claim that we should still be safe for at least another ten thousand years… by which time, who knows, we really might’ve found a way to nullify the danger, anyway. But, for now, that’s why we’re unlikely to ever erupt Yellowstone on purpose.
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