"First Contact With Inner Earth": Drillers Strike Magma

Richard A. Lovett in San Francisco, California
for National Geographic News
December 17, 2008

A drilling crew recently cracked through rock layers deep beneath Hawaii and accidentally became the first humans known to have drilled into magma—the melted form of rock that sometimes erupts to the surface as lava—in its natural environment, scientists announced this week.

"This is an unprecedented discovery," said Bruce Marsh, a volcanologist from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, who will be studying the find.

Normally, he said, volcanologists have to do "postmortem studies" of long-solidified magmas or study active lava during volcanic eruptions.

But this time they'd found magma in its natural environment—something Marsh described as nearly as exciting as a paleontologist finding a dinosaur frolicking on a remote island.

"This is my Jurassic Park," he said at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.

First Contact

The find was made 1.5 miles (2.5 kilometers) underground during exploratory drilling for geothermal energy.

The crew hit something unusual during routine operations at the Puna Geothermal Venture, owned by Ormat Technologies, Inc., of Reno, Nevada.

When the workers tried to resume drilling, they discovered that magma had risen about 25 feet (8 meters) up the pipe they'd inserted.

The rock solidified into a clear glassy substance, apparently because it chilled quickly after hitting groundwater.

Scientists had long known that magma chambers must lie in the vicinity of the drill site.

(Related news: "Vesuvius Magma Chamber Rising; May Mean Milder Eruption" [September 10, 2008].)

Continued on Next Page >>


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