Thursday, October 11, 2018

Is NASA Planning to Geoengineer Yellowstone’s Supervolcano Threat Away?

A theoretical NASA paper written in 2015 was misconstrued in 2018 to suggest an urgent need to geoengineer a solution to Yellowstone’s eruptive potential.   

In the realm of of science-based clickbait, no topic is more reliable for delivering page views and social media shares than claims that the pool of magma sitting below Yellowstone National Park is about to erupt in a humanity-ending cataclysm. As we have repeatedly, exhaustingly, and redundantly reported, the likelihood of that mega-disaster’s occurring in the next couple of thousand years is extremely low, and the region is monitored continuously for threatening activity which would provide ample warning if that situation were to change for some currently unknown reason. A perfect example of the pervasiveness of this claim (and, perhaps, the futility of fact-checking it), comes from the apocalypse-oriented website Breaking Israel News. Over the course of a few sentences, that website strung together multiple previously debunked Yellowstone claims into a meta-claim in need of a fresh debunking:

After initially denying that the unusual amount of seismic activity witnessed last year was an indication of imminent danger, NASA scientists are proposing a solution that could save half the world while admitting that their intervention could initiate the explosion it was intended to prevent.
Last year, increased seismic activity at Yellowstone generated a great deal of concern. More than 2,300 tremors were recorded between June and September, one of the largest earthquake swarms ever recorded at the site. Though geologists assured the public that the activity was normal for the site, another series of quakes and unusual eruptions beginning in February, increased fears that the supervolcano was waking up. An investigation revealed magma filling up in the underneath chamber of the supervolcano. In July, a massive, 100 ft.-wide fissure opened up in the Grand Teton National Park near Yellowstone, further increasing fears.

While Breaking Israel News didn’t actually mention a year in their story, the “2,300 tremors recorded between June and September” referred to a series of minor earthquakes breathlessly reported by the Daily Mail and other junk news purveyors back in 2017 as a sign of a coming cataclysm. As we noted in our debunking of those claims, thousands of detectable earthquakes occur in the Yellowstone region in any given year, and they in no way portend an imminent supereruption. The reference to a “100 ft.-wide fissure open[ing] up” in nearby Grand Teton National park, as we reported in July 2018, refers to an unrelated crack in a cliff face which rangers feared could result in a large chunk of rock’s crushing climbers and onlookers below, not a coming eruption. This newer iteration of a Yellowstone claim introduced viral fear by asserting that a NASA study published in 2015 (which received attention in a 2017 BBC Futures article) somehow proved NASA was not being honest about geologic events that post-dated their report. That BBC Future article, which Breaking Israel News and other sources cite extensively but without context, presented commentary from an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Brian Wilcox, who served on a NASA Advisory Council on Planetary Defense. That body did conclude in 2015 that a risk of a supervolcano was more likely than a large scale comet or asteroid impact, and they gamed out a variety of extremely theoretical and long-term solutions to mitigate such a risk:

Supervolcanic eruptions occur more frequently than large asteroid or comet impacts that would have a similarly catastrophic effect to human civilization, especially now that many asteroid orbits have been mapped. We assess whether future supervolcanic eruptions could be dampened, delayed, or prevented by engineering solutions. 

That brainstorming did not mean, however, that Wilcox or the other researchers concluded that a supereruption was more likely to occur in our lifetimes than previously thought, or that an urgent need existed to begin geoengineering solutions for it. Via email, Wilcox told us that “Neither I nor, to my knowledge, any of the co-authors has commented on the seismic activity or possible danger of a near-term eruption.” He referred to the geoengineering plans as a thought experiment revolving around the question “is it possible for human civilization to prevent supervolcano eruptions that might threaten humanity?”

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