Iceland’s Journey to the Center of the Earth

Krafla volcano, with its large crater lake of turquoise water, plumes of smoke, and sulfurous bubbles of mud and gases, is one of Iceland’s most awe-inspiring natural wonders.

Here in the northeast, a team of international researchers is preparing to drill two kilometers (1.2 miles) into the heart of the volcano, a Jules Verne-inspired project aimed at creating the world’s first underground magma observatory.

Scientists and engineers from 38 research institutes and companies from 11 countries, including the United States, Britain and France, are involved in the $100 million project, which began in 2014 with the first drilling to begin in 2024.

The Krafla Magma Testbed (KMT) team hopes to drill into the volcano’s magma chamber. Unlike the lava that erupts above ground, the molten rock below the surface remains a mystery.

KMT is the world’s first magma observatory, Paolo Papale, a volcanologist at Italy’s INGV National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, told AFP.

“We have never observed underground magma except for occasional encounters during drilling” at volcanoes in Hawaii and Kenya and at Krafla in 2009, he said.

The scientists hope the project will lead to the development of basic science and what they call “super-hot rock” geothermal energy.

They also hope to increase knowledge of volcano prediction and risks.

“Knowing where the magma is is vital” in order to be prepared for an eruption. “Without that, we’re almost blind,” Papale says.

Not so deep

Like many scientific discoveries, the magma observatory was the result of an unexpected discovery.

In 2009, while engineers were expanding the Kraft geothermal power plant, a drill rig accidentally hit a magma chamber at a depth of 2.1 kilometers with a temperature of 900 degrees Celsius (1,650 Fahrenheit).

Smoke rose from the hole and lava flowed nine meters up the hole, damaging the drilling material.

But there was no eruption and no one was hurt.

Volcanologists realized they were within reach of a magma pocket estimated to contain about 500 million cubic meters.

Scientists were astonished to find magma at such a shallow depth – they had expected to have to drill 4.5 kilometers deep to do so.

Subsequently, studies showed that the magma was similar in properties to the magma from the 1724 eruption, which means it is at least 300 years old.

“This discovery could be a huge breakthrough in our ability to understand many different things,” from the origin of continents to the dynamics of volcanoes and geothermal systems, Papale enthused.

A technically challenging task

The accidental discovery also proved beneficial to Landsvirkjun, the national electricity agency that operates the site.

Being near liquid magma, the rock reaches such extreme temperatures that the fluids become “supercritical,” that is, in a state intermediate between liquid and gas.

The energy generated there is 5-10 times more powerful than in a conventional well.

At the time of the incident, the temperature of steam rising to the surface was 450C, the highest volcanic steam temperature ever recorded.

The two supercritical wells will be enough to generate 60 megawatts of power for the plant, which is currently served by 18 wells.

Landsvirkjun hopes the KMT project will lead to “new technology that allows us to drill deeper and harness that energy, something we haven’t been able to do before,” said Vordis Eiriksdottir, head of geothermal operations and resource management.

But drilling in such extreme conditions is technically challenging. Materials must be able to withstand corrosion caused by super-hot steam.

And the possibility that drilling could trigger a volcanic eruption “is naturally a concern,” says John Eichelberger, a geophysicist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and one of the founders of the KMT project.

But, he says, “it’s like poking an elephant with a needle.”

“A total of a dozen holes hit magma in three different places (in the world), and nothing bad happened.”

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