Text Box: GE5185 Volcanology - Fall 2011
Text Box: Big Ideas in Volcanology
Text Box: Controlling Eruptions

Science yearns to discover a means to control or stop volcanic eruptions before they begin.  To date there have been no successful efforts to start, stop or reduce a volcanic eruption; however, the ideas exists and discussion is underway.  By accurately forecasting or minimizing a volcanic eruption, scientists and decision makers can reduce the risk and damage to human health and property through preparation and  evacuation.  Unfortunately, eruption forecasting is not totally accurate or reliable.  However, if we are able to initiate a volcanic eruption we could schedule the event and prepare, properly evacuate and effectively eliminate risk to human well being.  Think of it as a “geologic Caesarean” .  Other techniques to control an eruption could include depressurization of the magma chamber or increasing the aperture of the vent to diffuse the energy of an eruption.

Drilling at Mt. Unzen, Japan was the first successful penetration of a hot conduit at an active volcano. Image from Eichelberger and Uto (2007).

Text Box: Depressurizing a magma chamber maybe the most reasonable and could be attempted by drilling and allowing passive degassing of the magma and thus reliving pressure build up.  Perhaps the escape of magmatic gas could be controlled in the same way that hydrothermal fluids are controllable allowing for a calculated release of pressure.

An exploratory well at Krafla volcano in Iceland was infiltrated by magma at a depth of 2.1 km.

Drilling into volcanoes is often done for research purposes.  Here are some notable attempts.

Geothermal drilling (left), designed to tap the heat and energy found below the surface can reach deeper than 4 km and research drilling in Russia has reached beyond 12 km in depth.  A model of the plumbing system of Stromboli (right) volcano suggests that the magma ponding zone is found between 7 t0 10 km. It is therefore not unreasonable to think we cannot someday tap into a magma reservoir and passively release the pressure in an effort to subdue an eruption.

Image obtained from the Economist.

Image obtained from Metrich et.al 2009 

Inducing an eruption through the use of explosives truly seems like science fiction day-dreaming, however, this idea has been discussed since at least World War II.  Triggering eruptions by bombing was considered as a means to inflict greater damage on Japan.  Although it was never attempted it was certainly discussed, and could therefore be considered a possible engineering solution to an impending eruption in the future.

Mt. Rainier looming over Seattle. Photo by Lyn Topinka obtained from USGS.

If we could plan an eruption at Mt Rainier we could direct the blast to the east and away from high population density areas.  In this scenario the preparation and evacuation of several small communities would be easier and much less disruptive than a volcanic crisis situation facing the Seattle metropolitan area.  Map obtained from Washington State Search and modified by web designer. Sorry Ellensburg and Quincy.

This cartoon illustrates how a sector collapse, exposing of a pressurized magma body could initiate a lateral eruption.  Image obtained from Tulane University.  If we could rapidly excavate the overburden and expose the magma we could initiate a planned eruption.

This crater was formed by a shallow, 100 kt nuclear explosion know as Storax Sedan. Calculated as a hemisphere (V=2/3πr3), the volume of material removed from this crater is approximately 0.015 km3. Could we bury several equivalent devices on the eastern flanks of Rainier, or other volcanoes, to expose pressurized magma and trigger and eruption? 

For comparison, the debris avalanche that triggered the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens is estimated at ~ 2.3 km3. The eruption is estimated to have released 24 mt of energy.