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How NASA Plans to Prevent a Supervolcanic Eruption in Yellowstone National Park
An eruption from a supervolcano could be catastrophic. Here’s NASA’s plan and how sensible it is.
Yellowstone is one of the jewels in the National Park system, and a great symbol of the American frontier. Old Faithful, the geyser that goes off every 35-120 minutes, stands as a national treasure which in truth hides a deeper, and more foreboding possibility. It stands within one of three calderas or large volcanic craters, each born after a massive eruption.
A caldera is formed when underground magma retreats and the ground above collapses, forming a large depression. The Yellowstone Plateau has three calderas, caused by eruptions occurring between 2.1 million and 640,000 years ago. Nothing catastrophic has happened since.
Then back in June, the Yellowstone Supervolcano was rocked by over 450 small earthquakes within the same week. Although it was a higher amount of activity than in the past five years, scientists at the University of Utah, who monitor seismic activity at Yellowstone, were unfazed. The media exploded with stories however, talking about what kind of damage such a massive supervolcano could cause.
Most of these were little quakes were at magnitude one or below, which wouldn’t be noticed by a human without a seismograph. (See the magnitude scale here). One had a magnitude of 4.5 which can be felt but only causes minor damage. One major reason scientists aren’t worried, such clusters are relatively common.
One of the measures is how much material is erupted. The US Geological Survey.
What’s more, monitors are set up all over the area to pick up any volcanic activity. So what is a supervolcano and is there any way to stop it? It all starts with the VEI. The Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) is a scale used to measure how explosive a volcanic eruption is. It was devised in 1982 by Chris Newhall at the US Geological Survey (USGS) and Stephen Self at the University of Hawaii. With it, scientists classify current and historic eruptions.
Any volcanic center which has in the past registered an eruption of magnitude 8 or larger, on the VEI, is considered a supervolcano. This is measured by how far away deposits from the eruption are found. Supervolcano deposits can be found up to 240 cubic miles (1,000 cubic kilometers) away. Supervolcano eruptions are classified by how much pumice, lava, and ash they eject, and how high the column gets.
There are 20 known supervolcanoes around the world today. Besides Yellowstone, the US has Long Valley in eastern California. Other notable ones include Taupo in New Zealand and Toba in Indonesia. See some of the world’s biggest here. Asia and South America have their fair share. Volcanic hotspots are active areas in the mantle or middle layer of the Earth. Weak points in the lithosphere (the Earth’s crust) allow the magma to escape. Since the tectonic plates are always moving, when a weak point passes over a hotspot, magma rises up onto the surface.
Supervolcanoes around the world. Oregon State University.
So what would happen if one of these supervolcanoes were to blow? If Yellowstone erupted, the ash would spread out over 500 miles. Most of the continental US would be affected. Count the West as the most affected region. Ash over the Rocky Mountains could be a meter or so deep.
Besides the untold devastation dealt to those living in the shadow of such a volcano, depending on the severity or how long it would last, it could lead to significant changes in the climate. Ash would block out sunlight, leading to volcanic winter. This could threaten crop yields which could lead to food shortages or even mass starvation. Volcanic gases meanwhile could cause acid rain. It probably wouldn’t end life on Earth, but the results would be catastrophic.
The BBC recently reported a special NASA plan to counteract a supervolcano. In truth, there’s really nothing anyone can do to stop an eruption. Yet Brian Wilcox of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is developing countermeasures. NASA's plan is to drill into the supervolcano and fill it with cold water to cool it down, much like how a radiator in a car works. The constant flow of steam would then provide a source of renewable energy with no carbon footprint.
Ash cloud over Mt. Cleveland, Alaska. By ISS Crew Earth Observations experiment and the Image Science & Analysis Group, Johnson Space Center. 20006. Wikipedia Commons.
There are two sticking points. First, we need drills that can go down five miles (approx. 8-10 km). Right now, we can just barely reach that depth. USGS scientists say setting up a coolant system would have little effect on an erupting supervolcano.
The trouble is, cooling the lava upfront does nothing for the magma behind it. There are thousands of cubic kilometers of it to cool. Such efforts therefore would probably not be enough. Perhaps such a plan could quell the supervolcano for a short time but not forever. A devastating eruption would eventually occur.
Not to worry though. The scientists who monitor Yellowstone say it shouldn’t blow anytime in the next few thousand years. According to USGS, the odds that it’ll erupt in any given year is one in 730,000 or 0.00014%. It’s about the same risk as a large asteroid slamming into the Earth.
Still, these numbers may not be totally accurate. They’re based on the intervals of time between past eruptions. Since it isn’t possible to do it any other way, scientists use statistics, history, and comparison to predict major volcanic events. Luckily, a recent study finds that the volcano at the Yellowstone plateau has actually been weakening over time.
Supervolcanoes will someday become a threat. Long-term planning and significant jumps in technology could allow us to control them and perhaps even harness their power to generate electricity. But today even though viable plans are beginning to form, such a scenario remains out of reach.
To learn more about the Yellowstone Supervolcano, click here:
So much for rest in peace.
- Australian scientists found that bodies kept moving for 17 months after being pronounced dead.
- Researchers used photography capture technology in 30-minute intervals every day to capture the movement.
- This study could help better identify time of death.
We're learning more new things about death everyday. Much has been said and theorized about the great divide between life and the Great Beyond. While everyone and every culture has their own philosophies and unique ideas on the subject, we're beginning to learn a lot of new scientific facts about the deceased corporeal form.
An Australian scientist has found that human bodies move for more than a year after being pronounced dead. These findings could have implications for fields as diverse as pathology to criminology.
Dead bodies keep moving
Researcher Alyson Wilson studied and photographed the movements of corpses over a 17 month timeframe. She recently told Agence France Presse about the shocking details of her discovery.
Reportedly, she and her team focused a camera for 17 months at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), taking images of a corpse every 30 minutes during the day. For the entire 17 month duration, the corpse continually moved.
"What we found was that the arms were significantly moving, so that arms that started off down beside the body ended up out to the side of the body," Wilson said.
The researchers mostly expected some kind of movement during the very early stages of decomposition, but Wilson further explained that their continual movement completely surprised the team:
"We think the movements relate to the process of decomposition, as the body mummifies and the ligaments dry out."
During one of the studies, arms that had been next to the body eventually ended up akimbo on their side.
The team's subject was one of the bodies stored at the "body farm," which sits on the outskirts of Sydney. (Wilson took a flight every month to check in on the cadaver.)Her findings were recently published in the journal, Forensic Science International: Synergy.
Implications of the study
The researchers believe that understanding these after death movements and decomposition rate could help better estimate the time of death. Police for example could benefit from this as they'd be able to give a timeframe to missing persons and link that up with an unidentified corpse. According to the team:
"Understanding decomposition rates for a human donor in the Australian environment is important for police, forensic anthropologists, and pathologists for the estimation of PMI to assist with the identification of unknown victims, as well as the investigation of criminal activity."
While scientists haven't found any evidence of necromancy. . . the discovery remains a curious new understanding about what happens with the body after we die.
Metal-like materials have been discovered in a very strange place.
- Bristle worms are odd-looking, spiky, segmented worms with super-strong jaws.
- Researchers have discovered that the jaws contain metal.
- It appears that biological processes could one day be used to manufacture metals.
The bristle worm, also known as polychaetes, has been around for an estimated 500 million years. Scientists believe that the super-resilient species has survived five mass extinctions, and there are some 10,000 species of them.
Be glad if you haven't encountered a bristle worm. Getting stung by one is an extremely itchy affair, as people who own saltwater aquariums can tell you after they've accidentally touched a bristle worm that hitchhiked into a tank aboard a live rock.
Bristle worms are typically one to six inches long when found in a tank, but capable of growing up to 24 inches long. All polychaetes have a segmented body, with each segment possessing a pair of legs, or parapodia, with tiny bristles. ("Polychaeate" is Greek for "much hair.") The parapodia and its bristles can shoot outward to snag prey, which is then transferred to a bristle worm's eversible mouth.
The jaws of one bristle worm — Platynereis dumerilii — are super-tough, virtually unbreakable. It turns out, according to a new study from researchers at the Technical University of Vienna, this strength is due to metal atoms.
Metals, not minerals
Fireworm, a type of bristle wormCredit: prilfish / Flickr
This is pretty unusual. The study's senior author Christian Hellmich explains: "The materials that vertebrates are made of are well researched. Bones, for example, are very hierarchically structured: There are organic and mineral parts, tiny structures are combined to form larger structures, which in turn form even larger structures."
The bristle worm jaw, by contrast, replaces the minerals from which other creatures' bones are built with atoms of magnesium and zinc arranged in a super-strong structure. It's this structure that is key. "On its own," he says, "the fact that there are metal atoms in the bristle worm jaw does not explain its excellent material properties."
Just deformable enough
Credit: by-studio / Adobe Stock
What makes conventional metal so strong is not just its atoms but the interactions between the atoms and the ways in which they slide against each other. The sliding allows for a small amount of elastoplastic deformation when pressure is applied, endowing metals with just enough malleability not to break, crack, or shatter.
Co-author Florian Raible of Max Perutz Labs surmises, "The construction principle that has made bristle worm jaws so successful apparently originated about 500 million years ago."
Raible explains, "The metal ions are incorporated directly into the protein chains and then ensure that different protein chains are held together." This leads to the creation of three-dimensional shapes the bristle worm can pack together into a structure that's just malleable enough to withstand a significant amount of force.
"It is precisely this combination," says the study's lead author Luis Zelaya-Lainez, "of high strength and deformability that is normally characteristic of metals.
So the bristle worm jaw is both metal-like and yet not. As Zelaya-Lainez puts it, "Here we are dealing with a completely different material, but interestingly, the metal atoms still provide strength and deformability there, just like in a piece of metal."
Observing the creation of a metal-like material from biological processes is a bit of a surprise and may suggest new approaches to materials development. "Biology could serve as inspiration here," says Hellmich, "for completely new kinds of materials. Perhaps it is even possible to produce high-performance materials in a biological way — much more efficiently and environmentally friendly than we manage today."
Dealing with rudeness can nudge you toward cognitive errors.
- Anchoring is a common bias that makes people fixate on one piece of data.
- A study showed that those who experienced rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to bad data.
- In some simulations with medical students, this effect led to higher mortality rates.
Cognitive biases are funny little things. Everyone has them, nobody likes to admit it, and they can range from minor to severe depending on the situation. Biases can be influenced by factors as subtle as our mood or various personality traits.
A new study soon to be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that experiencing rudeness can be added to the list. More disturbingly, the study's findings suggest that it is a strong enough effect to impact how medical professionals diagnose patients.
Life hack: don't be rude to your doctor
The team of researchers behind the project tested to see if participants could be influenced by the common anchoring bias, defined by the researchers as "the tendency to rely too heavily or fixate on one piece of information when making judgments and decisions." Most people have experienced it. One of its more common forms involves being given a particular value, say in negotiations on price, which then becomes the center of reasoning even when reason would suggest that number should be ignored.
It can also pop up in medicine. As co-author Dr. Trevor Foulk explains, "If you go into the doctor and say 'I think I'm having a heart attack,' that can become an anchor and the doctor may get fixated on that diagnosis, even if you're just having indigestion. If doctors don't move off anchors enough, they'll start treating the wrong thing."
Lots of things can make somebody more or less likely to anchor themselves to an idea. The authors of the study, who have several papers on the effects of rudeness, decided to see if that could also cause people to stumble into cognitive errors. Past research suggested that exposure to rudeness can limit people's perspective — perhaps anchoring them.
In the first version of the study, medical students were given a hypothetical patient to treat and access to information on their condition alongside an (incorrect) suggestion on what the condition was. This served as the anchor. In some versions of the tests, the students overheard two doctors arguing rudely before diagnosing the patient. Later variations switched the diagnosis test for business negotiations or workplace tasks while maintaining the exposure to rudeness.
Across all iterations of the test, those exposed to rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to the initial, incorrect suggestion despite the availability of evidence against it. This was less significant for study participants who scored higher on a test of how wide of a perspective they tended to have. The disposition of these participants, who answered in the affirmative to questions like, "Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in his/her place," was able to effectively negate the narrowing effects of rudeness.
What this means for you and your healthcare
The effects of anchoring when a medical diagnosis is on the line can be substantial. Dr. Foulk explains that, in some simulations, exposure to rudeness can raise the mortality rate as doctors fixate on the wrong problems.
The authors of the study suggest that managers take a keener interest in ensuring civility in workplaces and giving employees the tools they need to avoid judgment errors after dealing with rudeness. These steps could help prevent anchoring.
Also, you might consider being nicer to people.