Seeing into the hellish bowels of a volcano can be achieved in numerous, fantastical ways, from seismic surveys and thermal probes to even using particles produced during destructive cosmic ray interactions with our own atmosphere.
Sometimes, though, to get an actual unadulterated sample of volcanic material, you have but one option – drill. That’s precisely what volcanologists and engineers in Iceland have been doing atop Reykjanes, a huge volcanic system that’s been dormant for about 700 years.
It’s composed of small shield volcanoes, lava fields, explosion craters, and incredibly young lava flows, and it’s all fueled by the upwelling plume of superheated mantle material slowly tearing Iceland apart. Nearby, you can cross a bridge between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.
Researchers at the Iceland Deep Drilling Project (IDDP), intrigued by the unusual magma pooling beneath the otherworldly surface, decided to grab as fresh a sample as possible of this broiling madness.
“The depths beneath the production zone of the geothermal field at Reykjanes have never before been explored,” an IDDP statement announced.
The only way to do that was to drill a volcanic borehole beneath the surface, and they’ve just managed to get to a record-breaking depth of 4,659 meters (15,285 feet).
This is nowhere near as far down as magma would normally be present, although if you think about it, this would be a terrible idea. If the drill survives the journey into the partly molten mass, it will then depressurize it, causing a small batch of it to shoot up to the surface in what would essentially be a man-made volcanic eruption. Alternatively, and perhaps more likely, the drill would just be destroyed, and the magma would remain entirely within the chamber.
Still, they did essentially drill into the rock immediately surrounding the magma, which is itself a whopping 427°C (about 800°F).
Part of the Reykjanes lava fields in southwestern Iceland. R. Andrews
Apart from getting some rather interesting, thermally altered geological samples, the boreholes will ultimately be turned into what amounts to steam pipes – the very sort used in geothermal energy plants that already dot the country and provide 25 percent of the country’s electricity.
Water naturally circulates around magma chambers under extreme temperatures and pressures. At certain points, it becomes “supercritical”, which means it has entered a temporary physical state where it can move through solids like a gas and dissolve material like a liquid – without being one or the other.
Unlike most geothermal plants – which use regular, volcanically-powered steam – this supercritical fluid contains a lot more inherent energy, and thereby can be used to build a power plant that’s 10 times more powerful than conventional ones.
Ultimately, then, this is a demonstration of what happens when you combine scientific ingenuity with the power of nature. Sure, volcanoes can be scary, but they can also fuel entire nations – and other volcanic nations are already taking note.