NASA believes the Yellowstone supervolcano in the United States is a greater threat to life on Earth than any rogue asteroid. So it’s come up with a cool plan to defuse* its explosive potential.
The stunning Yellowstone National Park spans across northern states Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
The park’s untouched wilderness, scenic landscapes and colourful hot pools and geysers attract tens of thousands of visitors every year.
But underneath this beautiful, but thin, skin is a huge, active supervolcano.
An enormous pool of magma, calculated to contain about 250 billion cubic kilometres of molten rock, sits high in the Earth’s crust.
Brian Wilcox of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory told the British news station BBC he saw the supervolcano as a greater threat to humanity than an asteroid from space.
“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,” he said.
“I came to the conclusion during that study that the supervolcano threat is substantially* greater than the asteroid or comet threat.”
There are about 20 known supervolcanoes on Earth.
A major eruption occurs about once every 100,000 years. And these odds are much higher than a repeat of an Earth-changing comet impact of the type that wiped out the dinosaurs.
So, NASA tasked a team with figuring out how to prevent one.
A supervolcano is very different from the common idea of tall cones of rock and ash that occasionally catastrophically erupt.
Instead, it’s a vast space of collapsed crust that can cover hundreds of square kilometres. And if it were to erupt, it would not be with a bang.
Instead, vast quantities of searing* magma and clouds of fumes would slowly crawl across the landscape — burying much of the United States under a thick coat of ash and lava.
In the case of Yellowstone, it’s enough to change the climate of the world for several centuries.
But Yellowstone isn’t expected to erupt any time soon. It appears to burst roughly once every 700,000 years. The most recent was 640,000 years ago, with other events 1.3 million years ago and 2.1 million years ago.
NASA’s researchers have told the BBC they have explored what it would take to avoid a supervolcano catastrophe.
The answer: find a way to cool the magma down.
Supervolcanos only spill over when the molten rock is hot enough to become highly fluid.
In a slightly cooler state, it gets thicker, stickier and slower.
To achieve this, the Jet Propulsion Labs team calculated a supervolcano on the brink* of eruption would have to be cooled 35 per cent.
They propose to do this by pricking the supervolcano’s surface, to let off steam.
The NASA scientists propose making a 10km deep hole into the hydrothermal water below and to the sides of the magma chamber.
NASA proposes that, in an emergency, this enormous body of heated water can be injected with cooler water.
This could prevent the supervolcano’s magma from reaching the temperature at which it would erupt.
Such a project could cost in excess of $3.5 billion. But it’s nothing like the reconstruction cost of digging two thirds of the United States out from under mountains of volcanic ash.
And it could even help pay for itself.
Steam from the superheated water could be used to drive power turbines*.
“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,” Mr Wilcox said.
defuse: stop from exploding
searing: very hot
on the brink: about to
turbines: machines that produce energy
LISTEN TO TODAY’S STORY
Read the story carefully.
Just from reading it, try to work out what these words or terms mean. Maybe you already know what some of them are.
Write the word then a sentence explaining what you think it means.
• national park
• molten rock
• Earth’s crust
• hydrothermal water
Then look up each word or term to check your answers.
Choose one of the words or terms from the list and find out more about it.
Imagine that you have been asked to write a page in a book about the word or term.
Include pictures on the page.
Time: allow 85 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: Science, Critical and Creative Thinking
Create diagrams with labels and written information that show the differences between a volcanic eruption and a supervolcanic eruption.
You might want to find out more about them first.
In AD 79 the Ancient Roman city of Pompeii was completely buried after a massive volcanic eruption.
The city was forgotten and lay undiscovered for over 1700 years.
Find out more about Pompeii and what archaeologists have found there.
Use the information that you have found to write a Kids News story about three interesting things that have been found at Pompeii.
Time: allow 100 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: Science, Critical and Creative Thinking, History
(Vocabulary, Connectives, Openers, Punctuation)
A simile is a figure of speech where one thing is compared with another.
You can usually tell if it is a simile is the sentence includes as or like.
Tom ate his food like a vacuum cleaner.
The storm was as loud as fireworks
Can you create 10 similes about space from the words in the article?
Use some of the nouns and the adjectives in the article to help you.
Now create 10 similes for supervolcanoes.
Time: allow 25 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum links: English, Big Write, VCOP
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