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NASA's plan to save Earth from a supervolcano (bbc.com)
210 points by transverse on Sept 9, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 110 comments

Seems like it might be prudent to first try extracting 35% of the heat from a volcano smaller than the Yellowstone Caldera. We might learn some things, and if we get it wrong the consequences don't result in widespread starvation.

That said, it's obvious that this plan is just the start of serious investigation into how we can engineer mitigations to an eruption at Yellowstone. I would be interested in seeing a model of the impact that surface-level cooling would have on the pressures deeper in the system. If we prevent an eruption now, are we making it worse in the future?

Other solutions I can envision might be to deliberately trigger smaller eruptions over longer timescales at the boundaries of the caldera. We could also look at large-scale mitigations for volcanic particulates in the atmosphere, including solutions that may require several hundred or thousand years of advanced preparation for success. If we could control the impact of a significant yellowstone eruption to a single hemisphere, or limit the duration to a single summer, most ecosystems would be able to recover quickly.

I don't think we dare trigger any eruptions at Yellowstone, ever ever ever. My understanding is that there's a positive feedback loop that kicks in; there's just no way to know the whole thing won't go up.

But the plan of drilling into the bottom of the magma chamber from the sides sounds like it might be safe enough. The pressure is much higher there, which ironically is safer because it keeps dissolved gases from coming out of solution, which is what starts the eruption process. That, at least, is my non-expert understanding.

Apparently a drop in pressure causes a chain reaction. When pressure drops all the dissolved gases come out of the magma like bubbles in a shaken up soda. This results in a massive increase in volume.

So releasing the pressure will cause the dissolved gasses to come out of solution, triggering the actual eruption? Sounds dangerous.

There should be a way to pull energy out of it without risking releasing the current pressure. The hot solid rocks above are pretty good at transferring heat, and you only need to drill part of the way into them. A very small hole can move a lot of energy.

Point is that lowering the temperature would cause an eruption if what GP says is true.

The Afghanistan campaign costs about 3 billion a month, so drilling a volcano for a similar amount shouldn't break the bank. This will contribute far more to our security!

Wolf Blitzer at CNN tells us that it's actually a moral problem to stop funding war because defense contractors will lose jobs.

Source: https://theintercept.com/2016/09/09/wolf-blitzer-is-worried-...

I find it amazing that CNN has been able to remain dominant in television news broadcasting. They're a vicious clique of bloodthirsty warmongering propagandists. You'd think people would have grown disgusted at some point in the last 30 years and tuned out.

The cost of empire!

http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175627/tomgram%3A_david_vine... might be an article on it.

Or, maybe this is just another attempt from NASA to prevent budget cuts. And in a cunning way. Pump fear, look cool, create a long term very expensive very difficult project, keep money coming. IMO, moving money from war machine to risky projects is hardly justified. Both should be gone.

Well the enlightened human being are so small a fraction of the population, that this argument probably doesn't even ends up being made aware to the vast majority of this nation...

I was just in Yellowstone so much is still unknown about it and the more I read about it and saw the more afraid I became of it. At one point we saw a crater the size of a city block it was a geyser then in the 80s exploded and killed a few people. I got to thinking "WTF are we doing here this thing is going to blow at any time!?"

In Bill Bryson's book, A Short History of Nearly Everything, he talks about the dangers of Yellowstone and how catastrophic the eruption would be, however, he also points out that these potential eruptions are often preceded by a period of elevated signs of volcanic activity, which as I understand, Yellowstone is not currently experiencing. Of course, geological timelines are impossible to predict, but until I read that book, I didn't even know Yellowstone was dangerous and wouldn't have found out until reading this article.

A slight correction -- in the book, he says explicitly that we think it would come with elevated signs of activity. But 1/ we have no idea, since we have very little knowledge of the last eruption; and 2/ there are large variations in activity currently -- we have no idea if we would be able to differentiate the current "everything seems okay" increased activity from "SHTF" activity.

I live near Yellowstone (as in going there, seeing the sights and going home is a day trip with time to spare) and always tell people that we're the lucky ones. If the Yellowstone volcano ever goes in our lifetime we'll die instantly. If it goes off, most of the populated world is going to die anyways, might as well be the first.

Yes, but it doesn't have to be this way. That is the whole point of the article.

Serious question: is your house insured against volcano?

No, I'm pretty sure there would be no one to make a claim even if they were.

Eruptions are preceded by earthquakes, venting and other events. I think there is a good chance people would evacuate from a smaller eruption (verses a life on earth extinction event)

what are property taxes like?

Something like 0.79% assessed value in my country on average. It's supposedly one of the lowest in the nation. The general cost of living is pretty low when compared to most places in the States and being so close to Yellowstone and other national and state parks is nice.

I don't know what displays they have there. But I'll mention that it's very interesting to see the "trail" it has etched across the western side of the continent. Vast geological topology and constructs are now attributed to it. As well, its forecast future path is interesting.

Just like the Hawaiian spot has left a chain of islands and sea mounts in its wake, the Yellowstone hotspot is -- slowly -- on the move.

IIRC, there was another spot that moved through the southern U.S. and broke the then extant mountain chain that curved westward from the current Appalachian chain. The famous open-air "you pick it" diamond mine in Arkansas might be attributable to it.

On a separate note, its National Aeronautic and Space Administration. Not just "Space". The next time some political bozo complains about the Earth "not being its mission. As well, studying the Earth provides NASA and others insight into what they encounter and will encounter on other planets -- out there in space. Meaning not just direct visitations, but also interpreting collected signals (telescopes et al.)

Anyway, in addition to that, I'm glad SOMEBODY is studying the Earth. We didn't develop our modern society by turning away from the facts and experience in front of our eyes.

> I don't know what displays they have there. But I'll mention that it's very interesting to see the "trail" it has etched across the western side of the continent. Vast geological topology and constructs are now attributed to it. As well, its forecast future path is interesting.

There's a good display of this at one of the visitors centers within the park.

Is anyone else surprised by the excess heat number? 6GW?

The reactors at Chernobyl were 3.2GW thermal designs and they had four of them. I guess I would have thought a super volcano that can cause human mass extinction would be... more powerful?

The other part to remember though is that it takes roughly 600,000 years to build up enough pressure to erupt.

earth holds onto shit. imagine not letting go of something for 600,000 years.

I think this post does a pretty good job of addressing why the thought experiment will remain in the realm of science fiction.


I disagree. I'll take this sentence:

> When all is said and done, a massive eruption at Yellowstone, or any other caldera for that matter, isn’t a question we should answer by trying to stop it. Instead, we need to build resilience into our society to survive after such an event.

Why? This doesn't make much sense to me. Seems much better to prevent a giant catastrophe from happening in the first place than trying to pick up the pieces when it's done (an ounce of prevention and all that).

Furthermore, his arguments get totally hand-wavy when it comes to whether a power plant could remove heat fast enough to prevent an eruption. At the end of the day, all you need is a higher wattage out than in, and I see no reason that would be impossible.

Infinitely more things than yellowstone can go wrong

I don't know what your definition of infinite is but that doesn't sound right at all, and further your argument applies equally to all existential risks, so it doesn't really tell you that you shouldn't work on this particular one.

"Instead, we need to build resilience into our society" is the key here, many many things can happen.

Building resilience instead of preventing a catastrophe sounds like a false dichotomy.

A mark of a resilient society could be the ability and will to (1) predict the development of events and sense probable future catastrophes long in advance, and to (2) invest into preventive measures that would show effectiveness many lifetimes later.

Concrete actions might range from cooling down volcanoes like per TFA, to colonizing other worlds, to systematic construction and maintenance of contingency infrastructure, to deliberate collective mindset shifts.

Perhaps what we both can agree on is that it’s this long-term consciousness that we (as humanity) may be lacking.

Societal resilience doesn't protect much against the massive widespread death and suffering that can happen. Preventing a Yellowstone eruption does.

It's just a different objective, although they overlap.

How about we actually do something like increase the reserve food supply from more than 72 days? Yellowstone is not the only potential source of disruption to the food supply and right now if anything happens in the northern summer we are totally screwed.

If we assume that a supervolcano blocks out the sun enough to prevent crops from growing for two years and that increasing the 72 day buffer is impractical, then how could we ride it out without mass starvation?

I'd guess there'd be a lot of sudden interest in energy-efficient LED grow lights and there'd be an over-supply of beef in the short term because there's no food for the cattle, so we might as well eat them.

Long term, it's all about being able to have enough indoor hydroponic/aeroponic space to grow enough food for ~7.5 billion people, which sounds really difficult and impractical.

I find it interesting that one possible benefit of Elon Musk's Mars plan is that the same space/energy/resource efficient food production technology that will be needed on Mars is the same technology we would need on Earth in order to ride out certain catastrophes. By creating an interplanetary "insurance policy" to ensure human survival, we may improve our ability to survive on Earth.

> Long term, it's all about being able to have enough indoor hydroponic/aeroponic space to grow enough food for ~7.5 billion people, which sounds really difficult and impractical.

I can't find the research I read a few years ago but from what I understand growing indoors is crazy practical. Plants need less sun light, essentially zero pesticides, can grow much faster and if you build your structures vertically you'll be able to farm the same amount of food on orders of magnitude less space.

I don't know if we're at the point where it can be practical today, especially with so much subsidy in farming, but I'm very optimistic about it moving to automated systems within buildings that wouldn't even need the sun.

This is the solution if we have a decade long event, but we need time to implement this - you can't just set up millions of acres of indoor growing space overnight.

Ideally, we need a couple of years food in storage together with detailed plans for how to grow food indoors (if needed).

With that kind of incentive, I bet we could do a lot in a short amount of time. It doesn't have to be that high-tech, does it?

War is probably the best way to estimate the time required. The USA took 18 months to switch over to a full war economy in WWII. We might be able to do it in less, but ideally we have in place a couple of years worth of food.

Oh I agree. I'd still love to see it happen in at least an experimental form. It sounds so ideal if everything works out (especially making automated systems far easier for automatic harvesting).

Space is not an actual problem with farm land. Setting up LED lights outside is a vastly easier solution. Remember, there would still be natural light, just significantly less.

The alternative is we build up a stockpile of food in a similar way to the US strategic oil stockpile. If oil is worth having in storage in case something bad happens it would seem obvious that food should be in the same category.

Food spoils so a stockpile like that isn't quite feasible. Sure we'll be able to get some foods that store well and can last for years but that's a small subset of food and even that food not all of it lasts for more than two years.

It's just not realistic. Sure we can significantly enlarge our buffer but two or more years? I can't see that happening in any practical sense.

Most grains can be stored for years under the right conditions. Sure the quality will decline over that time, but given we are feeding a large amount of grain to livestock this decline is manageable.

Even having a single years buffer would be very worthwhile. As I mentioned in the OP if we have a catastrophic event in the northern summer the poor are in serious trouble.

The problem is the food you are storing is constantly going bad. So you need to recreate the entire massive food stockpile every year or so, in order to have it ready when the time comes. We'd have to find a way to efficiently cycle food through the stockpile and back to consumers before it became useless. But I doubt consumers are going to be lining up to buy old food. The food would be expensive to buy fresh, then wouldn't sell for much when it is old. It would be a crazy expensive program, and it would increase the price of fresh food for everyone.

Not if the stored grain was fed to livestock. We already do this in practice as we keep the high quality grain for direct human consumption, while the lower quality grain is fed to livestock.

Once the stockpile was established and the process of cycling it set up, then the cost should be relatively minor.

More importantly what is the alternative? Let everyone starve?

That does seem like a sensible plan.

It won't be so dark that crops can't grow at all. We would need a lot of indoor agriculture, but there will probably still be areas where we can grow crops outdoors.

Or similarly, try to reduce the population enough so that we are not constantly on the razor edge of famine.

We are not remotely on the edge of famine. Something like 80% of our crop production goes to feeding very calorie inefficient livestock. In any real famine they would be slaughtered and their food intake would be redirected to human consumption. We are nowhere near the limits of the population Earth can support, at least food wise.

Us rich people will probably be fine (unless the situation was decades long), but many people in the world won't be able to pay the higher prices. If you are currently spending 70% of your income on food and prices triple then you will starve.

'Richness' is rather redefined during a calamity if that size. The banks won't work and money would be quite worthless.

This wouldn't solve the problem of a disruption to the food supply, just lessen the number who died. If my family starve to death it won't be much comfort to me that only a billion others die rather than five billion.

Nor would it really work in practice. Reducing the population would reduce demand (eaters), which would eventually lead to a reduction in supply (Farmers).

Moreover, wrt to the 72 days raised by ggpp, one would just shrink the surplus to 72 days for the smaller population.

We're good on a pretty dull razor.

Food insecurity is purely a function of the inefficiency of our society's means of food distribution.

Only while the sun shines though.

Sounds like we just need to convince some high tech billionaire that they need a supervillain lair powered by geothermal energy. Maybe power a data center or something. Put that excess heat to good use :-)

Too bad Kim Dotocm isn't wealthy enough (anymore?) to do this. I'm picturing him as the supervillain who builds out an encrypted data storage facility, like out of Cryptonomicon.

The advantages may be obvious but it all comes down to unit economics. How do costs per MW compare to something like coal, hydro, wind, or solar? And let's not forget the risk assessment that needs to be done in case the supervolcano does in fact explode, or even hiccup. Will it destroy or incapacitate the energy generating facilities?

Isn't the Yellowstone eruption essentially the same as the dinosaur ending meteorite event? Wouldn't most humans die except for those that could live off of stored foods/what could be raised off of stored food for a couple of years until the sun is visible again ala The Road (besides immediately killing a large percentage of Americans)?

I don't think it's on that magnitude. Humanity lived through an even larger eruption (Toba). I don't think anything but small animals living underground could have survived that asteroid.

Didn't toba reduce humanity to something like 2000 people?

It's a pretty good hypothesis with some backing in the genetic record and the timing of the event, the wikipedia says somewhere between 2000-20000 breeding individuals. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toba_catastrophe_theory Not sure where humanity was on the evolution timeline for the last Yellowstone eruption, but our ancestors somehow got through that, too.

Wasn't it discredited with the finding of human remains above and below the ash layer in India?

The wikipedia article mentions that there are similar stone tools above and below the ash layer in India so that it may be that the Toba eruption did not kill everyone in India even though it was local to India.

So it could be could be coincidence on the timing of the Toba eruption and the genetic narrowing down of the human race at almost the same time. But something happened 70,000 years ago, if not Toba, what was it? Maybe the onset of the ice age + Toba + other things occurring close together in time.

Regardless, the parent's point stands, that the overall benefit would be enormous - far greater than just the value of the electricity generated.

But what if it didn't erupt entirely and only partially erupted?

What about radiating the heat into space?

Why do that when it could be usefully used on the ground to generate electricity?

Did anyone else hear joint venture between the boring company and tesla? Volcano powered cars!

So they need to re-drill constantly? (after each m3.)

I have no idea what you mean by "m3", and I did some google searches ("m3 volcano" "m3 drilling") and it's still not clear.

If "m3" is jargon related to volcanos, geology, drilling, or geothermic power generation, I submit to you that most HN readers will be unfamiliar with the term.

Or maybe it's just me.

Probably refers to earthquakes (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moment_magnitude_scale).

Cubic meter?

I think GP is referring to this sentence near the end of the article:

>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.

And I think that sentence is vague enough that any argument using only it as a basis will be pretty weak.

cubic meter.

Nope. Once its energy is drained, it will become dormant. This will take a lot of gradual deep drilling.

Is there any research not on pre-emptive cooling, but about how to fast clean the atmosphere, to prevent a lasting nuclear winter, once the disaster happend?

If global warming decreases heat transportation to the surface, wouldnt the atmosphere and the volcanos form a self-regulating plant?

BBC.com as of late has been turning into Clickbait.com

Unfortunately, any project to drain the supervolcano's energy will meet with immense resistance from various groups of humans with limited intelligence who don't realize its power and the extinction-level destruction its explosion will cause. The article lists at least two ways of safely extracting the supervolcano's power without risking the triggering of an explosion, but this won't be enough to convince the idiotic naysayers. By harnessing its energy, we can have clean energy for millennia.

So it's limited intelligence to read an article that states "But drilling into a supervolcano does not come without certain risks. Namely triggering the eruption you’re intending to prevent."? They state that it could cause an eruption, yes they have an idea for how to minimize the risk but that doesn't mean no risk. As much as we may not like it, some people don't like taking risks at all. They'd rather do nothing and take their chances than take a risk.

Of course, there is a risk to doing nothing as well. (Literally, 'take their chances'...)

I think this government failed to educate people the important lessons

This just looks like an attempt to get geothermal energy from Yellowstone. The 6GW power getting out of the ground now is really nothing compared to the energy that's down there. Thermal conduction and fluid transport are what allows the energy to the surface. Adding geo-thermal power generation would increase energy dissipated but would do little to actually change the geologic situation.

I suspect if you asked power companies if they'd go for it they would jump at the opportunity, but TFA jumps the gun and suggests that the government may need to offer incentives to get started.

In short: Let's use peoples fear of global calamity to get them to allow drilling and building in a national park and get free money from the government too.

The article says that we don't want to drill in the national park itself, which is too close to the magma chamber and might trigger an eruption. Instead it says we should extract the heat along the periphery, well outside the park's boundaries.

fwiw the amount of heat liberated will probably be about 3x the electrical power output. your point stands though

Indeed, as it seems NASA's best capability is to 'get free money from the government' (not volcano nor space exploration as many would expect).

Any agency primarily funded by government that survives past 10-15 years will have that as their primary competency.

It's more fair to judge NASA's space capabilities against all the other groups that take gov't money. They are much better at space than, say, the Department of Labor.

Just because there are recent, private entrants, who built much of their technology on the foundation work done by NASA, does not mean NASA should be mocked in this manner.

The other problem not mentioned: Yellowstone is the middle of fricken nowhere.

Electricity is hard to send long distances and central planning projects have shown to be their own disasters time-and-time again through history. "This time around though" we have more established population centers so maybe we can pull it off? Not sure! If the power could be produced cheap enough, it might pay off to maintain the massive power grid to send electricity to population centers...

What would truly be revolutionary is phase change electricity storage mechanism! Imagine being able to "ship" electricity on conventional roads, or even in existing pipelines, much the way we do with hydrocarbons.

Batteries charge roughly at the same rate they discharge, making electric cars a PITA. A conventional automobile can be "charged up" with enough potential energy in 8 mins in what takes the fastest chargers 75mins.

Wait, did you just claim centrally planned projects are disasters, and propose to use nationwide highway/pipeline network instead?

Yes! The subtle point being that our pipelines/highways already exist, and I'd love to shove something besides oil down the pipelines.

I missed where the interstate highway system was a spontaneous, uncoordinated series of projects that individual states and private entities took up on their own!

... but Interstates did not exist a couple generations ago. They were a planned project, carried out recently enough that many of us still remember when they were not done yet. That project was started in the 50s, and completed in 1992.

The point being, I think, that the highways were a centrally planned project.

This is not as intractable as you might initially think [0].

[0] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tres_Amigas_SuperStation

"Imagine being able to "ship" electricity on conventional roads, or even in existing pipelines, much the way we do with hydrocarbons."

That's why people get excited about Hydrogen. Surplus energy can be used to produce H2 via electrolysis. The process is pretty inefficient, but that perhaps doesn't matter if the energy source is abundant enough.

However, the infrastructure required for H2 distribution would be expensive. You can't use existing gas pipelines. It's probably more practical and affordable to just build long-distance HVDC connectors to export 6GW of energy.

H2 can be converted to DME (dimethylether) and then transported like LPG. DME is a much cleaner diesel replacement.

You can also produce hydrocarbons from water and air and use the existing infrastructure and vehicles.

We know how to transmit power over long distance with 10-15% loss.

dont say it

I'm ignorant, what does phase change have to do with energy storage?

Matter phase changes either require or release energy. For example, liquifying ice requires energy (which is why ice makes your drink cold when it melts), and the energy used to transform liquid water into steam can be reclaimed as useful work in steam engines. Phase change is one potential storage mechanism for, say, excess electricity production.

I hadn't thought of that. Thanks!

Maybe someday we'll have steam pipelines instead of gas pipelines?

It comes down to efficiency of transfer. I've heard of steam being used for power in machine shops and for heat in cities. I doubt the efficiencies make sense over much distance.

I used water as only an example. I don't think steam is generally thought of in terms of energy storage.

The idea of any group of humans "saving the Earth" is neighbouring on hubris. It's fine for the plot line of a Hollywood movie, but pragmatically we can't even engage in civil discourse anymore. Tampering with systems like plate tectonic without the ability to even predict the effects of oil shale fracking means we still have a lot to learn.

If the concern of the Earth being wiped out is legitimate, then focus instead on colonizing Space. The end result is the same: preserving human civilization.

I wouldn't say the end result is the same just because humanity survives. I mean, say the eruption occurs and as a result only a few billion people ultimately die. Well, human civilization is preserved. But it would be a lot more pleasant to prevent it happening at all.

Achieving the technology required to colonize space would also allow us to maintain our existence on Earth.

Exactly my point.

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