No, You Cannot Drill Into Yellowstone Volcano to Stop an Eruption

Yellowstone volcano's last major caldera-forming eruption took place about 640,000 years ago. The most recent volcanic activity, consisting of lava flows, ended around 70,000 years ago. The volcano is not "overdue" an eruption—but it is still an active volcano, with huge magma chambers deep beneath the surface and a hotbed of hydrothermal features.

The last time Yellowstone produced a huge supereruption, it covered western U.S., southern Canada and northern Mexico in ash. If it were to erupt now, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) has said effects would be global, with ash falling for years to decades and changes to climate. Montana, Idaho and Wyoming would be affected by searing hot pyroclastic flows.

So what could be done to prevent an eruption? Michael Poland, the scientist-in-charge of Yellowstone Volcano Observatory (YVO) has considered this question in this week's Caldera Chronicles—a weekly column written by scientists working at the site.

Poland said people often ask if you could drill into Yellowstone in order to relieve pressure building beneath the ground to help prevent an eruption occurring. He said magma reservoirs are far more complicated than just huge caverns of liquid magma.

"Instead of huge balls of liquid magma, they are a mushy mix of rock, melt, crystals, and various fluids and gasses, with poor interconnectivity and often no sharp boundary between the reservoir and the surrounding rock," he said, explaining Yellowstone has two magma chambers—one between 3 and 10 miles beneath the surface, and another between 12.5 and 31 miles underground. These reservoirs are mostly solid, with between just 2 and 15 percent molten lava.

"Pressure within this type of system is not like air in a balloon, and it cannot be easily dissipated by poking a hole, or even a hundred holes, into the complex structure," he wrote. "Within a magmatic system, pressure accumulates because magma and associated fluids are accumulating. It would be as if a balloon were filling with mostly solid cement, with some poorly connected regions that were wet and contained some gasses. Poking a hole in that balloon would not cause the cement to disappear, nor would it reach all parts of the poorly connected 'wet' part of the system.

"Moreover, the drill holes intended to tap the gasses in a magma reservoir would plug shut with dense taffy-like magma without constant intervention."

Poland also said you could not cool the magma reservoir by pumping water into it. He said that while NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory found it could be cooled with enough water over thousands of years, their calculation overlooked Yellowstone's hotspot, which fuels volcanism at the site. "Cooling the magma body by pumping water into the subsurface would be like attempting to cool a pot of boiling water by steadily adding droplets of cold water but leaving the burner on," he said.

So you could not prevent an eruption through drilling or injecting the volcano with water, but could you set off an eruption with a nuclear bomb? That is also a no.

The USGS says earthquakes release huge amounts of energy—the largest earthquakes release around the same amount of energy as a 2,000-megaton nuclear weapon. In 1975, an earthquake released the same amount of energy as a 2-megaton nuclear weapon. This is about 100 times the size of bigger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

This earthquake took place right next to Yellowstone's magma chamber, meaning much of the energy was transferred straight into the rock. "In a nuclear attack, the detonation would occur above ground, so the majority of the energy would be released into the air," the USGS said. "And guess what happened to Yellowstone volcano after the M7.3 earthquake? It didn't erupt! The only impacts were some changes in hot springs and geysers due to the shaking."

Stock image of the Grand Prismatic Spring at Yellowstone National Park. Drilling into the volcano would not help prevent an eruption. Getty Images