Draining the Caldera
September 20, 2012 11:57 AM   Subscribe

If we knew when it was going to happen could our society engineer a way to prevent an upcoming volcanic eruption?

A recent conversation over beers veered into some idle speculation about the various science apocalypses the internet likes to freak out about from time to time and if they could be prevented. Asteroids and super volcanoes and the like. There is already plenty of info out there about the challenges involved in of nudging an asteroid out of a collision course. It seems maybe doable, especially since we'll most likely have decades of warning and Bruce Willis is still currently alive.

But what about supervolcanoes, or volcanoes in general? If we were somehow given a decade of advanced warning could something like the Yellowstone caldera be prevented? I'm imagining some sort of network of drills and lowlands used as planned magma drainage basins to release the pressure. Granted we can't drill down to the mantle, but presumably if the magma is bubbling up under pressure we wouldn't need to right? If this would work how many low lying towns would we need to evacuate and replace with new igneous deposits to make this happen? Do we have the chops to build a magma pipeline to dump it into the ocean? Or to shoot it at our enemies Dwarf Fortress style?
posted by cirrostratus to Science & Nature (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
We are already able to cool lava with cold water to significant effect. With a decade's notice, we could develop an impressive ability to concentrate cold water or even colder substances like liquid nitrogen, etc.

Mount Etna has had its lava path changed to avoid people. It would be possible to create very ambitious channels, essentially enormous dry, re-inforced riverbeds, and only the people along those paths would have to be relocated.
posted by michaelh at 12:07 PM on September 20, 2012

You may be interested in John McPhee's article Cooling the Lava from the New Yorker, also collected in his book The Control of Nature (it sounds like you would be interested in the other essays in that book too). It's about a successful effort to divert (not stop) a lava flow once it has begun.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:08 PM on September 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

We don't even have the mental, forward-thinking fortitude to deal with global warming and you're asking if we were given a mere decade of warning if we, as a society, could prevent a disaster of epic proportions?

No offense, but no. Technically we may have a moon-shot type chance of saving 'the Earth as we humans know it', I'll not delve into that as I'm sure someone else has actually run some numbers regarding the total energy that would be released in a Yellowstone level eruption and what sort of time window that energy would be release over, but I think that it would be more of a case of dealing with denialists and people who worry too much about how it's going to impact their bottom line and/or TV viewing schedules.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:08 PM on September 20, 2012

RolandOfEld: "We don't even have the mental, forward-thinking fortitude to deal with global warming and you're asking if we were given a mere decade of warning if we, as a society, could prevent a disaster of epic proportions?"

I could be wrong, but to me it seems the question is more "Is this physically possible?" as opposed to "Is this politically possible?".
posted by Grither at 12:21 PM on September 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

The bit about redirecting the lava path of Mt. Etna seems to be on the right track here. I guess what I'm really asking is, is it possible to create a controlled lava flow in order prevent a destructive explosive eruption. Either in super or regular sized volcanoes.

And yes, the question is about if it is physically possible. Assume for the sake of the question that a wizard has granted us with the knowledge of the event's date and the political gumption to start work on this tomorrow.
posted by cirrostratus at 12:24 PM on September 20, 2012

I think the challenge bigger than the lava would be the pyroclastic flow.
posted by NoraCharles at 12:43 PM on September 20, 2012

If we were somehow given a decade of advanced warning could something like the Yellowstone caldera be prevented?

No. We're not talking about a lava flow. Those aren't from explosions. An explosion isn't lava seeping out of the top of the cone. It's a larger explosion than humanity has ever been able to create, by several orders of magnitude. Don't think Etna, think Mt. St. Helens, only multiply it by about a thousand.

The 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens is estimated to have involved energies equivalent to about 24 megatons of TNT, something like half the size of the largest atom bomb ever detonated. Yellowstone, should it ever go up, is likely to be in the "supervolcanic" range, which is about three orders of magnitude more powerful than that.

Even trying to bleed off the energy over the period of a decade would be impossible. It's not as if you can just tap and vent the heat. The pressure is caused by stone building up on top of a "hot spot" in the mantle. To prevent the explosion, you need to take the stone away, and it's just too much mass. We're talking about upwards of a trillion cubic meters of stone. For comparison's sake, the Great Pyramid of Giza is only 2.6 million cubic meters. That's 385,000 Great Pyramids, more than one for every ten square miles of the contiguous US. In ten years. It took the Egyptians about twenty years (we think) to build one. Even if we could build one ten times faster, we'd still be twenty times too slow.

Absolutely, positively not.
posted by valkyryn at 12:49 PM on September 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

In that case a few quick numbers to toss out over beers would be that the depth from the surface of Yellowstone to the magma pocket is ten kilometers or so and that, as far back as the 80s we were able to drill that deep even if heat was what caused them to stop drilling.

You'll also have to come to some agreement on what the terms like prevention, mitigation, and survival mean in your discussion as well. Dealing with one foot deep ashfall at distances of 1,000+ miles from the eruption is no mean feat, do you want to set the prevention of that or simply the continued survival of the human race/ as the 'victory condition' of your question?

On preview: What NoraCharles mentions is what I'm trying to get at, by 'venting' some of the lava/energy before the actual eruption date you will, according to physics, lower the magnitude of force powering the pyrocrastic flow, which I agree is the biggest threat to contend with. I view lava/magma, and perhaps tectonics in general, as the energy storage device here but not the real threat when it comes down to the the actual event.

So, given some basic assumptions like wizardly political gumption and the advances in technology we've had over the last century or so, not to mention the ones that might be developed between now and the actual event date, and the (perhaps naive) thought that surely the world would band together and work frantically to save itself I'd give it a possible, if not probable rating.

I love conversations like this, doubly so if over beers, but people do tell me I'm too nitpicky at times so sorry if I'm coming across that way.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:49 PM on September 20, 2012

What happened in Mt. St. Helens was a steam explosion. There was superheated water, a lot of it, inside the mountain. As the magma body grew, it caused the mountain to bulge, and eventually there was that famous landslide.

Once the physical overburden was removed, pressure on all the superheated water was reduced and there was a mammoth flash-over to steam (which, ironically, caused a huge increase in pressure). That's when the explosion happened.

The Yellowstone Caldera is the same kind of situation. The overburden of rock is bigger, and the magma body is larger, and there's a lot more water down there, already superheated.

So, remove the overburden? About the time you get halfway done, you have reduced enough pressure on the water so that it flashes over, and you get exactly the catastrophe you're trying to prevent.

Add more material? Build an artificial mountain there? That only delays the inevitable, and makes the ultimate explosion bigger once it finally happens.

Drill and drain? The problem is that the superheated water isn't in pockets. It's soaked into the pores of the rock deep in the ground. There's no way to tap enough of it.

Anyway, that one is also a boomerang. The superheated water already down there is part of the pressure that's currently preventing the flashover. Drain out enough of it and the pressure down there gets lower -- and you again cause the flashover you're trying to prevent.

Pump cold water in to replace the hot, and cool the magma body? The numbers are too big. I don't care how many holes you drill, you aren't going to be able to keep up with the natural process. This doesn't stop the explosion, it only slows it a bit.

No, we don't know of any way to prevent it.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:05 PM on September 20, 2012 [6 favorites]

Just as an aside, Fukushima Reactor #4 is thought to have suffered a steam explosion. If you think putting wet french fries into hot oil is problematic, it's nothing compared to pouring hot oil into water.
posted by rhizome at 1:43 PM on September 20, 2012

I think in theory we could prevent destructive explosions and even control lava flow. (A deeper question is whether we would really want to.) There are already ways in which we harness the energy of volcanoes for geothermal power production, and this could be an important new source of energy. Hypothetically we could use some combination of geothermal tapping and techniques akin to fracking to modify the volcanic process itself and perhaps make it more benign, especially for volcanoes located close to population centers. But that's a long, long way off. I think as noted above we're looking at a scale of energy that's almost beyond imagination, as if we were trying to adjust global warming by dimming the sun.

I think our experience with earthquakes is instructive. There has been discussion about predicting earthquakes better, but for the most part we try to adapt to earthquakes by creating more robust building codes. (An argument can be made that this is a tremendously expensive path to risk management.) Forest fires are another. We do so much fire-fighting even though the fires are in unspoiled nature actually a normal process. The problem only arises because of human occupation of the land where forest fires occur. We've talked about better building codes and there are things you can do like keeping vegetation cut back or firebreaks, but ultimately the problem is only getting worse because people are moving into the danger zone faster than we can make them safe. I think this is really the aspect to focus on, not the Popular Science cover story.
posted by dhartung at 1:44 PM on September 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Being slightly silly but... we've got plans for redirecting asteroids. Crashing one into a volcano would create a downward pressure that might trigger the upward pressure. That could be done to release pressure ahead of time, or in a crazy attempt, to hope the two cancel out.
posted by jwells at 4:07 PM on September 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Without a substantial body of prior and relevant experience, I am skeptical. We can change the planet's surface, temperature, etc. We can connect oceans. We can sling tiny particles full of humans to the moon, but can we move billions of tons of rock? Can we accurately project the consequences? Can we muster the will to go with the untested expertise? Would there be agreement on the actual threat posed? What unintended things might we engender and would there be any parallel plan to ameliorate them? How would we know if our intended consequence was a result of our efforts or of a spontaneous change in the model we fear?

Your hypothetical needs more words, but with the limited ones you assembled, I remain skeptical. Trains don't run on time, and airplanes, which we have been flying for a century, fall from the sky. We're fallible, ignorant, weak, misguided, fractious, and over confident as a species. Combine that with a poorly understood, hidden, goddamedawfullyfriggigpowerfulplanetfullofthermalandgravitationalenergy and you have all the makings of a celestial fukyou of a size that gives me anal cramps at this very instant. ouch.
posted by FauxScot at 5:17 PM on September 20, 2012

Tommy Lee Jones managed to successfully channel the lava flow of a volcano in 104 minutes.
posted by Doohickie at 7:26 AM on September 21, 2012

The Deccan Traps is a geological feature of India that was formed by lava flowing from a volcano. It's made up of basalt layers around 2,000m (a mile and a quarter) thick and was originally about 1,500,000km (about 600,000 square miles) in area. The amount of energy needed to merely raise that amount of rock to the surface is inconceivably huge. There's no way that any human process could affect it.

But for a small enough volcano, sure. As other posters pointed out, you can spray water at the lava flow and get it to make its own dikes that block further lava flows.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:16 PM on September 22, 2012

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