Yellowstone: Silent Threat or Sleeping Opportunity?
The first National Park of the United States, Yellowstone is a park well known for its natural pristine beauty and geological splendor. Containing two-thirds of the world’s active geysers it is a world known and appreciated geological hot spot. Beauty and wonder aside, there is another reason for world recognition. The knowledge that the source of its wonder is the largest known magma chamber in current history… information that gives the park another title: A Super Volcano!
When the news first surfaced many were surprised and stunned by the realization that their beloved park was a ticking time bomb of immeasurable damage potential. In its prehistoric models the geologic evidence around the region show that the volcano has erupted several times on an interval of roughly 600,000 years. Currently the volcano has gone without eruption for 640,000 years, a warning indication to many that an eruption is overdue. Every year thousands of small earthquakes are recorded by seismic equipment set about the interior of the volcano’s caldera a sunken area of land that forms a caldron-like shaped depression of land after the collapse of a volcanic magma chamber following an eruption. Are these earthquakes the building precursor to an imminent eruption?
While many would like to think it is not and just an effect of the churning volume of magma below, others are thoroughly convinced that the largest natural disaster witnessed by man is to occur in their, or their children’s, generation. Of course, geologic models aside, there’s no telling when an upheaval in the Earth’s crust or a seismic shift may pop the proverbial bubble. It may never happen, or it may happen within our lifetimes. We don’t know for sure, and while models can help, they may not provide an accurate depiction or include various uncertainties.
So what can be done about it? Although it excites the doomsday followers and unnerves the placid, it is only a threat of a negative reality if left alone. However, as an energy resource it is huge in its dangerous untapped potential. What may become another climate alternating cataclysmic Super Volcano, may also be the greatest geothermal energy provider in history.
Now before people worry that their beloved park will become a crisscross of wires, transformers, and energy facilities, desecration doesn’t have to occur at all. It would actually be preferable not to directly target the roof of the magma chamber for fear that any unnatural penetration of rock may risk damaging or upsetting the natural integrity of the dome beneath. Instead, geothermal plants can be constructed along the outside edge of the caldera, or even beyond it.
Why geothermal plants, and why would that help anything other than providing profit before the eruption? A good question and obviously one of many that would rise as a front to a proposal like this. While profit and electricity are an obvious motivation for this endeavor, it could also go a long way to saving and preserving the park. Unlike the geothermal plants that need a natural steam vent to drive their generators, water injection facilities can create wells and pockets of water deep into the hot rock layers underneath the plant, duplicating the natural hydrothermal processes within the park by injecting water, having the earth heat it and having it rise as steam. This steam then runs through a generator before flowing through a condenser that extracts enough heat from it to allow it to return to water to be injected again. Though it wouldn’t siphon much heat from the edges of the chamber, it may be enough to cool its edges and prevent the chamber’s internal heat energy from rising to a level that could cause eruption.
This cooling effect can already be seen in the park’s hydrothermal activities of today. Water above the magma chamber is heated by the energies and reaches levels of super-heated concentrations within pockets of the rock beneath. When the water reaches a connecting vent to the surface, it erupts out as a steam vent commonly called a geyser. The water – though still quite hot – is cooled by the air and returns to the ground where it can be reheated. If such a cycle bleeds heat off little by little, it’s possible that it can help reduce more pressure than if it there was no release at all. It is questionable to say whether this process or the ice age that created it led to the extended length between eruptions.
For the future of Yellowstone National Park, it is up to the future generations on how they wish to inherit it. One option is a national park with a constant uncertainty lurking beneath its surface, or the other a park of both physical and electrical importance… an importance not only securing its value but intensifying its usefulness. The decision isn’t that difficult.