The end of the world looks different for everyone. A big meteor hitting somewhere in the Sahara, pollution and changing climates finally taking their toll, or even aliens zipping down to the surface and squeezing off a few laser blasts top most predictive lists. No one truly has the answers.
Except for maybe a handful of NASA engineers, whose sole focus was all-things catastrophic. In their research, they came across a threat hiding in one of the world’s most beautiful places and knew something had to be done, fast. If they couldn’t cook up a serious defense, their grim vision of the future would come to pass — and it wouldn’t be pretty for anyone.
When Brian Wilcox joined the NASA Advisory Council on Planetary Defense, the mission laid before him was simple: find the realistic ways the world might end, and then, stop them from happening. He never could’ve predicted where his research would take him.
At first, his job mostly entailed drawing up schemes to prevent Earth from getting smashed with an asteroid or comet (none of which involved a Bruce Willis Armageddon situation). But because of his research, Brian’s attention — and worries — turned away from space debris.
What really started to concern Brian was in Yellowstone National Park, the 3,500-square-mile stretch of rivers, canyons, forests, and sights like Old Faithful that draws tourists from all over the world. Beneath the beauty, trouble was brewing.
See, five miles under the surface is a pool of magma with access to the surface. In laymen’s terms, it’s a volcano. But because it holds so much explosive potential, scientists classify it as a super volcano, one of twenty on the planet.
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“I came to the conclusion during that study,” Brian, who eventually transferred to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said, “that the super volcano threat is substantially greater than the asteroid or comet threat.” When diving into the possibilities, it’s easy to see why.
Every 100,000 years or so, a super volcano erupts, and Yellowstone’s, according to the doomsday experts, could potentially be due: throughout history, it’s burst three times, about once every 600,000 years. It’s been about that long since the last blast.
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Of course, eruption models aren’t exactly a precise science. Just because we’re at the 600,000 year mark doesn’t guarantee another magma blast. But Brian, focused on doomsday, couldn’t ignore the potential devastation of an explosion.
Three feet of ash could blanket states like Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, and Idaho. Atmospheric cooling would induce a “volcanic winter,” wiping out crops and making it impossible to grow more. Food reserves, according to the UN, would run out 74 days later.
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After studying the destructive potential, NASA scientists were left scratching their heads. The chances of such a devastating eruption were low, sure. But they couldn’t sit around, fingers crossed, hoping the odds were in humanity’s favor.
At the drawing board, scientists considered what they knew about volcanoes, namely that they erupted once the magma inside reached a certain temperature threshold. So, these experts thought, why not simply cool the volcano down?
Soon, a hazy plan started to form: all they needed to do to prevent potential volcanic annihilation was dump enough water into Yellowstone’s super volcano to cool it down. It was oddly archaic, but crazy enough to work. Still, others voiced criticism.
Creating the infrastructure to transport all that water would never get mainstream support. “Building a big aqueduct uphill into a mountainous region would be both costly and difficult,” said Brian Wilcox, “People don’t want their water spent that way.”
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He went on: “People are desperate for water all over the world, and so a major infrastructure project, where the only way the water is used is to cool down a super volcano, would be very controversial.” So, what could be done?
The plan needed another layer, more depth. Back at the drawing board, experts tossed around cooling methods, keeping in mind that any infrastructure necessary would likely have to get Congress’s approval. Finally, their collective brainpower has an answer.
Instead of transporting water into the mouth of the super volcano, experts can drill down just over six miles into the earth on each side of it. Then, recyclable water will be pumped in at high pressure, cooling the magma from the bottom up. This has an additional perk.
“Through drilling in this way,” Brian Wilcox said, “it could be used to create a geothermal plant, which generates electric power at extremely competitive prices.” Unfortunately, the strategy isn’t without seriously catastrophic risks.
Drill at the wrong angle, and scientists risk damaging the cap over the magma chamber, which could release toxic gasses into the atmosphere or only expedite any volcanic eruption. The project also comes with a serious price tag.
At $3.46 billion, cooling the super volcano will not be cheap. Worse, those who start the project will never see it finished: lowering temperatures to “safe” levels will take tens of thousands of years. Still, the rewards outweighed the risks.
That’s why NASA experts hope they’ve created a blueprint to tackle every super volcano threat in the future. More importantly, scientists hope they’ve brought mainstream attention to a true potential threat to the world.
“When people first considered the idea of defending the Earth from an asteroid impact, they reacted in a similar way to the super volcano threat,” Brian Wilcox said. “People thought, ‘As puny as we are, how can humans possibly prevent an asteroid from hitting the Earth.’”
“Well,” he said, “it turns out if you engineer something which pushes very slightly for a very long time, you can make the asteroid miss the Earth.” Experts are hoping their plan does the same for this super volcano.
However, even with their attentions turned to Yellowstone, experts haven’t forgotten about meteoric threats. Lindley Johnson, a 23-year veteran of the Air Force, joined NASA’s ranks in 2003. Ever since, his mind has mostly been fixated on the end of the world.
But don’t worry — Lindley is no crackpot. He’s not urging on the apocalypse, but rather approaching it from an analytical standpoint. Lindley serves as NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer, so nobody is better equipped to take on doomsday than he.
While humanity does a pretty good job of endangering itself on a daily basis, Lindley doesn’t worry about terrestrial threats. He’s more concerned with space rocks. Granted, most meteorites that come down to Earth are pretty small, or even microscopic.
However, what if an asteroid — say, one that is multiple football fields in diameter — was hurtling toward our planet? Odds are pretty good that it would land in the middle of the ocean, but Lindley wants more than luck on his side.
That’s why his NASA team investigates (hypothetical) cases of giant asteroids hitting densely urban areas. Thousands of years typically pass between such catastrophic events, but Lindley intends to be ready at any point.
After all, Earth’s geography proves just how destructive a collision can be. NASA certainly doesn’t wish to see Midtown Manhattan turned into a crater, but they are interested in exactly how far that damage would spread.
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Lindley’s team continually runs simulations to get a better idea of where asteroids are most likely to strike, plus what kind of damage we can expect. In some cases, a collision may be inevitable. But Earth isn’t totally helpless.
For years, Lindley and his colleagues were operating on a shoestring budget. Fortunately, a 2015 audit convinced Congress just how essential planetary defense could be. They immediately buffed up Lindley’s annual spending power from $5 million to $50 million.
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With more resources on his side than he ever imagined, Lindley has led the charge against galactic peril. His NASA team assembled an arsenal of data and cutting-edge technology to keep asteroids at bay.
NASA keeps this fact on the down-low, but they’ve cataloged over 2,000 asteroids in our solar system capable of obliterating an entire continent. Blowing up such a massive rock might cause too much fallout, so Lindley has other tricks up his sleeve.
The most promising method to redirect an asteroid is through the use of kinetic impactors. These unmanned spacecraft would crash into an asteroid at high speed, thus deflecting it away from our planet. Think of it as a game of high-stakes billiards.
With all due respect to fans of Armageddon, Lindley doesn’t believe that landing on an asteroid would be the most effective solution. Still, NASA hasn’t taken that option off the table.
Astronauts have trained for complex asteroid landings, though nobody has ever attempted the feat. NASA foresees this operation more as a way to collect mineral samples, but there’s always the chance they’ll go full Michael Bay in an emergency.
NASA has a selection of hypothetical fixes to choose from, though they’re also ramping up their asteroid prevention in more concrete ways. For instance, they’ve installed more orbital telescopes to monitor any life-threatening space rocks in the solar system.
The capability to spot catastrophe coming could be the most important factor in the end. Most deflection techniques require months or years to mobilize, so a few days notice won’t help at all. The good news is that NASA isn’t alone in this fight.
Lindley’s team ran exercises with FEMA — the Federal Emergency Management Agency — to prepare for collateral damage from a collision. “They are a great way for us to learn how to work together and meet each other’s needs,” Lindley explained.
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In 2019, Lindley also organized a conference with the European Space Agency and the International Asteroid Warning Network. Working together, they’ll have eyes on the sky all over the world.
While it seems unlikely that we’ll have to deal with an impending apocalypse, civilization is better prepared than ever. That news will only disappoint doomsday preppers, who may very well have stocked up their bunkers for nothing.
In spite of the life-or-death consequences of his job, Lindley says he sleeps just fine at night. It’s just another day at NASA. Besides, Lindley can name plenty of colleagues who have responsibilities that might be even more trying than his own.