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NASA’s Latest Frontier: Tackling Earth’s Supervolcanoes

NASA’s Latest Frontier: Tackling Earth’s Supervolcanoes

New discussion follows release of plans for a project to redirect the course of a small asteroid.

I have noted in previous posts, President Trump’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is returning to its original mission: Focusing on space exploration and research.

In the past month, the agency released plans for an ambitious project related to Earth’s protection from asteroid strikes.

On Friday, the space agency announced plans to redirect the course of a small asteroid approaching Earth, as part of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), according to a NASA press release.

The release notes that asteroids hit Earth nearly every day, but most are small enough to burn up in the atmosphere.

But the DART project — a joint effort between NASA and the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland — is for the asteroids that are too big to break up — those that could have severe consequences for the Earth if they hit.

In October 2022, as an asteroid named Didymos makes a near Earth approach, NASA will launch a refrigerator-sized spacecraft to collide with the space object as the first real test of this system. As I have detailed in an analysis of Extinction Level Events, asteroids have a nasty tendency to cause substantial and real global climate change.

However, asteroids are not the only global threat we face. In recent years, much research has been conducted on supervolcanoes such as Yellowstone, and there is a more robust appreciation of the havoc that their eruptions cause at both the regional and global scale.

In a very ambitious move, NASA is now targeting these geologic objects. Recently, a group of NASA researchers shared a report previously unseen outside the space agency about the threat posed by supervolcanoes and how to potentially prevent catastrophic eruptions.

…“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,” explains Brian Wilcox of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at the California Institute of Technology. “I came to the conclusion during that study that the supervolcano threat is substantially greater than the asteroid or comet threat.”

When Nasa scientists came to consider the problem, they found that the most logical solution could simply be to cool a supervolcano down. A volcano the size of Yellowstone is essentially a gigantic heat generator, equivalent to six industrial power plants. Yellowstone currently leaks about 60-70% of the heat coming up from below into the atmosphere, via water which seeps into the magma chamber through cracks. The remainder builds up inside the magma, enabling it to dissolve more and more volatile gases and surrounding rocks. Once this heat reaches a certain threshold, then an explosive eruption is inevitable.

I have one quibble with the approach. The Earth’s molten core generates a magnetic field that protects the planet from the solar winds and coronal mass ejections that could readily wipe away the atmosphere. Needless to say, an unintended consequence of too much magma cooling would be an epic level of climate change.

However, it is good to see the agency chart a new course away from social justice activism. I will look forward to the 2022 test for the asteroid project and pray that the Long Valley supervolcano complex close to my home stays quiet for awhile!


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I’m with not messing with stuff like magma plumes. The unintended consequences thingy.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Now wants to fiddle with volcanoes.


Sounds like an excuse to expand somebody’s budget.

And on the technical side, don’t hold your breath in anticipation of great things.

    healthguyfsu in reply to tom swift. | August 19, 2017 at 1:01 pm

    I’d rather NASA than the EPA and it’s not close.

    alaskabob in reply to tom swift. | August 19, 2017 at 1:02 pm

    But we saw Spock and Kirk stop a volcano from erupting! It is time now to start intensive (expensive) research to prepare for the day when the Enterprise can come to the rescue. We “have done enough” to save the world from volcano pollution and adding to global warming!

    Well globull warming is looking like a dead end so we’ll need a new replacement to scare the money out of people’s pockets.

As the magma nears eruption (which we hear about the threats of this regularly since circa 2005)…how are these impacting surface and sea temperatures?

Of course, we also hear that it’s not much and that CO2 is the big dog, but objective climatologists tell you that CO2, even in its wheelhouse (the atmosphere), is not the biggest contributor.

It’s so hard to reconcile all of this as a skeptical scientist in an unrelated field. I think it’s a lot easier for certain public groups to “trust in science” like it’s a religion when they don’t see what happens so often in the field. Of course, their pious zealotry leads to accusations of climate denier any time you even ask to see more proof. Then, the zealots frantically google and spit out every documentary line they can mixed with insults to try and silence dissent.

Disclaimer: I know little of the topic just the general nature of imperfect, fallible science as directed by humans, particularly politicians with agendas. Even still, large cohorts of the community have been flat wrong repeatedly in our history for no nefarious reason whatsoever.

Humphrey's Executor | August 19, 2017 at 2:39 pm

Since when is this in NASA’s bailiwick?

What could possibly go wrong?

One day the hubris of scientists may kill us all.

a joint effort between NASA and the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland

Back in my days as a rocket scientist I caused a bit of excitement for the Johns Hopkins AP Lab when I noticed that a space vehicle it was working on was not going to fit under the nosecone of the launch vehicle. True story; their room full of CAD guys hadn’t noticed it. Shoot, none of them would recognize a classical conic section if they sat on it.

So, as I said, don’t expect great things.

Connivin Caniff | August 19, 2017 at 4:05 pm

First priority for the government should be protecting the nation from Electromagnetic Pulses. One bad one – man-made or natural – could destroy the country and kill 90% of us.

“Needless to say, an unintended consequence of too much magma cooling would be an epic level of climate change.”

For crying out loud! Relieving heat buildup at a single supervolcano will have no discernable effect on the total heat of the earth’s core. If you believe that you have to believe that a supervolcano eruption — a natural event — could jeopardize the existence of the atmosphere. Such an eruption does, however, pose a risk of catastrophic global cooling, which has happened before. The human species was nearly wiped out due to such an event about 75,000 years ago — the Toba supereruption in what is now Indonesia caused a global winter that lasted for up to 10 years and a cooling period for a 1,000 years after. The magnitude of the risk justifies a modest expenditure to understand the supervolcanic system and possible ways to mitigate or prevent an eruption.

We are doomed. DOOMED I tell you. Or maybe f*** it.

CZ75Compact seems to be a fan.

If you want to start a fight around a camp fire…

But I won’t walk into that trap.

Instead I’ll serve up the fact that the Gurkhas perfected the knife.