It might seem a bit strange to write about a potentially disastrous natural explosion on a day known for the exploits of Guy Fawkes to enforce the ideals of freedom and separation from the System. Take a moment to visualize the world as the House of Parliament and the super-volcano at Yellowstone National Park as the indefatigable Fawkes. We are probably the menace it aims to destroy. Philosophical conjecture aside, this caldera has recently proven that it can rub smiles off people’s faces faster than a bad smell can manage to do so.

Wyoming is heating up with the news that their stately Geo-legend might turn moody any day now.

According to Express UK, the volcano has produced about 2,750 tremors – and that’s only counting from June 12, 2017. A quake registering 2.3 on the Richter scale happened in September, which led the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to further understand that something is not right at Yellowstone.

Leaping to conclusions?

A prominent USGS scientist, Mike Poland, did not sound unduly worried about the seismic activity of the National Park’s resident super-volcano. Before reading his statement to Newsweek, bear in mind that this magma-giant erupted more than 700,000 years ago (640,000 years, to be a little more precise). Now, about 600,000 years later, the hibernating giant has started showing signs of waking up.

According to Express UK, around 90,000 people in Wyoming alone might be killed if the caldera lets loose, and about two-thirds of the United States will be rendered uninhabitable.

According to Mike Poland, “...through the end of September, the University of Utah has located 2,475 earthquakes in the swarm.

This puts the 2017 swarm on par with that of 1985, which lasted three months and had over 3,000 located events.”

What’s the world to do?

We’ll get to NASA’s involvement in a bit. Meanwhile, imagine the state of things in the U.S. as mentioned earlier, and think about the ash clogging the atmosphere on a diabolical scale, resulting in sunlight deprivation and a plausible ‘nuclear winter’.

They don’t call it a super-volcano for nothing. This means food shortages and disease exposure; classic circumstantial symptoms of an extinction event.

A climactic change is highly likely post-eruption – sulfur dioxide is not known for its chemical complacency. Remember Mount St. Helens, in Washington? When it erupted back in 1980, it dispersed ash across 5 Canadian provinces, 11 American states, and even killed about 60 people. Our Yellowstone diva is purported to sing at 6,000 times the intensity of Mount St. Helens.

NASA, coming through

The ginormous magma chamber spanning the subterranean spaces of Yellowstone National Park is truly a work of natural art. It’s directly responsible for the existence of all the hot springs and geysers (Old Faithful springs to mind), at the Park.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) wing of NASA has stepped in to understand the threat. BBC’s coverage of the same has earned a bewildering quote from JPL’s Brian Wilcox who said, “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. I came to the conclusion that during that study, the supervolcano threat is substantially greater than the asteroid or comet threat.”

NASA’s first approach to resolving the problem was to keep things super-simple – they decided to cool the volcano down. In an article on BBC (Aug 17, 2017), the Yellowstone volcano is considered to contain a heat generating potential equivalent to six industrial power plants.

Through water (seeping through cracks into the magma chamber), about 60-70 percent of the heat is transferred to the atmosphere. The remaining 30 percent, give or take, has nowhere to go but into the rocks down in the depths, where it also dissolves volatile gases. After a certain point, this is sure to result in an eruption.

Keeping it cool

By extricating enough heat build-up, NASA has taken on the ambitious task of teaching the Yellowstone super-volcano to chill, and hopefully ensuring peace-of-mind on Earth. They have resolved to extract about 35 percent heat from within the magma chambers. To do this, they turned their attention to the most common element at hand that has already been at work dissipating the volcano’s heat reserves – Water.

According to the BBC, Brian Wilcox is on record sharing the JPL's plans to construct an aqueduct uphill into a mountainous region. He considers it difficult and conspiratorial to waste that much water and manpower at a time when resources are stretched thin all over the country and the world.

The art of drilling

The only feasible alternative, according to NASA’s JPL, is to drill into the super-volcano (about 10km in) and start pumping high-pressure water. As the fluid finds its way out, it will supposedly be ferrying 350C (662F) of heat out of the magma chamber, one day at a time. Now all that’s left to do is convince the politicians to sign off on the $3.46 billion venture to save the world; no pressure.

National Geographic posits that the volcano at Yellowstone is one of the best-monitored ones in the world. Scientists have found and studied about 20 super-volcanoes so far on Earth, which technically undergo major eruptions at 100,000-year intervals.

As we know that super-volcanoes can be capricious and sensitive, is it really a clever idea to drill into one? This could very well trigger the disaster that NASA is hoping to prevent. Wilcox has reassured the BBC that to go at it from the top is a risky idea but that it’s alright to drill from the volcano’s lower sides instead. He goes on to say that drilling will begin from the outskirts of Yellowstone National Park. This is scientifically kosher because, “This way you’re preventing the heat coming up from below from ever reaching the top of the chamber which is where the real threat arises,” according to Wilcox.

How long do we have?

The project is not as cut and dry as it seems on the surface. To cool such an ancient giant volcano is no easy task. The rate of one meter per year is the safest most plausible speed, meaning we are looking at hundreds if not thousands of years before confidently confirming that Yellowstone has returned from the Dark Side.

Even NASA seems to be at a loss for time, having no choice but to initiate the safety procedure and hope for the best. Admittedly, it is better than doing nothing at all and waiting for the worst. Brian Wilcox, who has apparently become the voice for JPL in this matter, shared these conclusive words with BBC in August:

“...If you engineer something which pushes very slightly for a very long time, you can make the asteroid miss the Earth.

So the problem turns out to be easier than people think. In both cases, it requires the scientific community to invest brain power and you have to start early. But Yellowstone explodes roughly every 600,000 years, and it is about 600,000 years since it last exploded, which should cause us to sit up and take notice.”