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Drilling Into a Stirring Volcano Is (Probably) Safe

November 10th, 2009 11:00 admin Leave a comment Go to comments

Campi-Flegrei-webA super-colossal volcanic eruption rocked Italy 39,000 years ago, and troubling signs at the site, now known as Campi Flegrei, have many scientists wondering when the next big one will hit. To probe the issue, so to speak, the Campi Flegrei Deep Drilling Project will drill nearly 2.5 miles down into the collapsed volcanic crater to find out if another blast is on the horizon. Though the researchers on this particular project point out that any risk is small, it will begin amid debate about whether such endeavours are safe, given the unknowns of a volcano’s interior. A few say drilling might even trigger a major eruption [New Scientist]. However, scientists on the project say this isn’t likely, as their drills won’t dig deep enough to set off an eruption.

Campi Flegrei isn’t well known because it lacks a volcanic cone, but it dwarfs Mount Vesuvius. All of Naples sits within its caldera, an eight-mile-wide collapsed area of land formed by the eruption 39,000 years ago. A similar volcanic eruption would leave large parts of Europe buried under ash, say scientists, however smaller eruptions occur every few centuries; the last eruption was in 1538. The researchers hope that by drilling into the volcano, they’ll learn if another smaller eruption is imminent. They hope to locate fracture zones and magma pools that could only be guessed at without drilling. This could show exactly where magma might ascend and collect prior to an eruption. Meanwhile, rock samples could be tested under high stresses in the lab to help model the ground deformation prior to eruption [New Scientist]. The caldera’s center has risen about 10 feet since the 1960s, which has lit a fire under the researchers since a similar rise proceeded a series of intense eruptions 4,000 years ago.

However, some critics do worry that the drilling could trigger an explosion prematurely rather than help prevent one. An oft cited examples is the 2005 Iceland Deep Drilling Project (IDDP) that was halted when drilling into magma for geothermal energy created an explosion. At Campi Flegrei, the greatest threat would be drilling 5 miles deep into a silica-rich magma chamber under high pressure. If they hit magma, the sudden rise in temperature would vaporise their drilling liquid, causing an explosion which could in turn trigger an eruption. It’s a sexy and dangerous headline, but … the risk doesn’t seem all that great: 4km [almost 2.5 miles] wouldn’t even be halfway deep enough to reach any known reservoirs of magma, so it’s probably a moot point [Gizmodo]. Either way, the project is moving forward, and the bores will drop in December or January.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons / Donarreiskoffer

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