Questions About Drilling at Yellowstone
Can you cool the magma beneath Yellowstone by drilling holes and injecting water?
We frequently get asked about this topic, and we point out the difficulty in cooling and depressurizing magma systems without unintended negative consequences, including making an eruption more likely. Nevertheless, drilling and injecting water is often proposed as a means of preventing future eruptions. For example, a 2015 document by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) describes techniques to quench large magma systems such as the one that underlies Yellowstone. In particular, the report describes the potential for cooling the >10,000 cubic kilometer magma system by intensive extraction of geothermal heat for thousands of years.
In some cases, limited scientific drilling for research can help us to understand magmatic and hydrothermal (hot water) systems; however, we believe drilling aimed to mitigate volcanic threat a much different subject, with unknown impacts, high costs, and severe environmental effects.
As a national park, Yellowstone is protected from geothermal resource development. The world-famous features, like Old Faithful Geyser and Grand Prismatic Spring, depend on heat provided by the magma chamber deep below Yellowstone's surface. Any allowed geothermal extraction would lower the pressure on the existing geysers and hot springs, altering their behavior and in many cases, causing them to disappear.
A supereruption is a devastating natural event that could indeed cause great harm to human populations. Given our understanding of similar past events, such an eruption will occur in the future somewhere on Earth, though given their frequency, arguably not within the next hundred thousand years.
At Yellowstone, such an eruption may never again occur. Yellowstone has already had two supereruptions, one other very large explosive eruption, and many large non-explosive lava flows. Some scientists have written that the magma source area is "tapped out." Our current imaging of the magma reservoir reveals a system that is likely too crystalline to erupt on a grand scale. Current activity is not indicative of precursors to near-term volcanic activity.
For these reasons, a program of large-scale magma quenching will not be undertaken at Yellowstone or elsewhere in the foreseeable future.
Can you release some of the pressure at Yellowstone by drilling into the volcano?
Scientists agree that drilling into a volcano would be of questionable usefulness. Notwithstanding the enormous expense and technological difficulties in drilling through hot, mushy rock, drilling is unlikely to have much effect. At near magmatic temperatures and pressures, any hole would rapidly become sealed by minerals crystallizing from the natural fluids that are present at those depths.