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.
“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.
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.
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?