it’s just a supervolcano, what could go wrong?

Scientists want to drill into a currently sleeping supervolcano to learn more about it. The payoff would be huge, but so are the risks.

mantle convection at a hotspot

Imagine yourself in a cage with a sleeping dragon. The cage itself is unlocked and you can get out whenever you’d like and because this cage is so well maintained, the dragon won’t hear you and wake up. But you don’t want to leave before you saw how this giant scaly beast in front of you breathes fire. What do you do? If you’re anything like a certain group of Italian volcanologists, you poke it with a sharp stick to see what will happen and what useful information you can gleam from that. Now, make that dragon a giant supervolcano that could put even Krakatoa to shame and the sharp stick, a drill that will probe four kilometers into its vast caldera.

Just in case you think you might have misread the sentence above, I will repeat that. A team of volcanologists want to drill down into the huge caldera of the dormant supervolcano Campi Flegrei which once erupted with enough force to blanket most of Europe in ash and possibly helped the demise of the Neanderthals 39,000 or so years ago. Maybe instead of a dragon I should’ve used the analogy of trying to open the innards of an active 20 megaton nuclear warhead to see what’s inside and how all the wires and triggers connect. Supervolcanic eruptions rate at the very top of the index used by geologists to rate the power of a volcano, registering at a jaw unhinging VEI 8 which non-geologists would categorize somewhere between epic and “holy crap!” depending on their proximity to the city sized column of ash and flame shooting into the stratosphere so fast, it knocks the sound wave itself upwards. That’s right. These monsters can produce blasts that kick sound’s rear end.

So considering all that, one would think that drilling into Campi is either a horribly reckless science project, or one of the most spectacular ways to commit suicide, right? Well, yes and no. On the one hand, using some of the latest seismic sensors and ground penetrating radar, volcanologists can find the safest spot to drill for an invaluable core sample from the supervolcano. The information it could reveal would certainly be worth it and would tell the scientists a lot more about what’s going on in the giant magma chamber than we could find out indirectly. But on the other hand, the risk of an eruption triggered by the vibrations of a massive drill couldn’t be completely and totally ruled out. And because volcanic systems can be very complex and hard to predict due to their sheer size and dynamic nature, whatever eruption would be triggered could range from a quick fizzle that lightly rattles the nerves of nearby Naples, or a full blown apocalyptic catastrophe that devastates a good deal of Europe and could have very adverse effects on the Middle East.

[ story via Larry O’Hanlon and Michael Reilly ]

# science // geology / supervolcano / volcanic eruption


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