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Yellowstone Supervolcano Could Be an Energy Source. But Should It?

National Geographic

Originally Posted: August 8, 2018

Yellowstone National Park could power the entire continental U.S. with clean energy. Maria Richards of SMU Geothermal Laboratory weighs in via National Geographic on why it remains untapped.

The northwest corner of Wyoming is boiling. There, 10,000 hydrothermal features transform Yellowstone National Park into an alien world with searing waters and steaming vents—all fueled by a simmering supervolcano.

While scientists agree that Yellowstone is not likely to erupt anytime soon, if and when it does, the event would be catastrophic. A massive magma chamber feeds this supervolcano, and an eruption would pack enough power to expel more than a thousand cubic kilometers of rock and ash at once. That would blanket most of the continental United States in debris and potentially plunge Earth into a volcanic winter.

So in 2017, NASA scientists ran a thought experiment to see if they might be able to halt a future supereruption. The internal study led by Brian Wilcox, an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, suggested drilling a series of wells around the perimeter of the park and pumping cold water down into the hot rock. The hypothetical solution would cool down Yellowstone’s magma chamber and prevent calamity.

As a bonus, the system would provide enough geothermal energy to power the entire country.

The idea, however, has reached a standstill. Yellowstone and other national parks have long been protected from commercial energy development to ensure that these regions remain pristine. The 1970 Geothermal Steam Act, which prohibited the placement of geothermal plants in national parks, even lists Yellowstone by name. (See vintage pictures of Yellowstone.)

While many geothermal experts agree that Yellowstone should remain untouched, reactions to NASA’s thought experiment highlight the promise and perils of other sizzling sites across the globe. Geothermal energy holds enormous clean energy potential, but it does carry drawbacks, and new power plants can face pushback from communities concerned about preserving the environment and even respecting local deities. READ MORE