During the volcanic winter, global food production will collapse, and as a result the human population will collapse from starvation.
During the long and dark volcanic winter, global food production will collapse, and the human population will collapse with it. Fred Hayes/Getty Images

If the supervolcano under Yellowstone National Park were to explode—and the recent swarm of earthquakes in the area indicates to some that an eruption is nigh—it would be the end of the world as we know it. The ash from the explosion would fall on and bury much of the US, Canada, and Mexico, and the planet would enter a long volcanic winter. Global food production would collapse, and because we and all other animals are completely dependent on the plant kingdom's conversion of solar energy into sugars (photosynthesis), the human population would collapse from starvation. It would take 74 days. If the volcano erupted today, the global food supply would be exhausted before Christmas. This would make the doomed trek of the dinosaurs in The Land Before Time look like a walk in the park.

NASA, however, has two plans to save the world from this catastrophe.

One involves drilling tunnels into the volcano and cooling it with water. The thinking behind this is: if we can keep the supervolcano under a certain temperature, it will never explode. There are, as you can see, two downsides to this plan. One, its implementation demands lots of government money and natural resources. Two, the return on this massive public investment is completely unknown. The last time the supervolcano exploded was 70,000 years ago, and despite all of the recent earthquakes, we still do not know if it will explode today or 10,000 years from now. When confronted with time scales that are that cosmic in size and uncertainty, an investment with no immediate or foreseeable return is as good as praying or scrying or throwing bones.

The second plan is to drill tunnels into the volcano, extract its heat, and convert it into energy we can use. The volcano would become a massive power station. As a scientist said to the BBC:

Through drilling in this way, it could be used to create a geothermal plant, which generates electric power at extremely competitive prices of around $0.10/kWh. You would have to give the geothermal companies incentives to drill somewhat deeper and use hotter water than they usually would, but you would pay back your initial investment, and get electricity which can power the surrounding area for a period of potentially tens of thousands of years.

As to why everything has to become about making a profit, beats me. But either way (profit or no profit, return or no return on investment), if nothing is done about the supervolcano, which is likely to be the case in our age of budget cuts and war on scientific realism, the best we can hope is that it doesn't explode in our lifetime.