Will drilling into magma start a volcanic eruption?

It seems logical that if underground magma can start an eruption by forcing its way to the surface, one might also start an eruption by opening a conduit from the surface to the magma. While plausible, that doesn’t seem to be what happens.

Magma has either been drilled into — or risen to enter — a drill hole four times, according to scientific literature. Of the four incidents, three occurred in Iceland and one in Hawaii with one of the Icelandic examples producing a brief spattering of lava. In all of the examples, the wells were not destroyed and continued to be used for their original purpose afterward.

The first known encounter was in September 1977, in a geothermal area south of Krafla volcano in Iceland. Hole B-4 was drilled to 3,734 feet in 1968 and had been producing hot water and steam for the Namafjall geothermal plant before the incident. The sequence started when a small amount of lava erupted in the northern part of the Krafla caldera during a rifting event, and it was followed by a migration of earthquakes to the south, directly toward the plant and the well field that included B-4.

The earthquake swarm allowed the tracking of an injection of magma along dikes to the south. The earthquakes arrived in the Namafjall area about 10 p.m. and, about 40 minutes later, a large crack opened that cut the main road. At 11:45 p.m., a loud explosion was heard when one of the pipes carrying steam from the well burst. It was followed 10 to 20 minutes later by a series of rapid explosions or bursts of glowing cinders, carried upward by steam jetting from the ruptured pipe that lasted about one minute.

It was later found that the magma was injected into the drill hole between depths of 2,050 and 3,405 feet. The eruption produced only a few cubic yards of lava spatter. Well B-4 was none the worse for the experience and, once the casing was repaired, continued in production until 2002.

The next three were less dramatic but equally interesting scientifically. Each was an instance of drilling into magma, and two of them were also in the Krafla volcanic zone. In 2008, well K-39 drilled into glass about 1.6-miles deep. The glass had probably been molten magma but was rapidly cooled by the drilling fluids before the actual encounter. In 2011, magma flowed into an exploratory geothermal well, IDDP-01, drilled into the center of the volcano at a depth of 1.3 miles.

The fourth example occurred in the only geothermal development in Hawaii and involved drilling into the lower east rift zone of the active Kilauea Volcano. In 2005, the Puna Geothermal Venture guided the KS-13 drilling operation into a molten magma body 1.6 miles beneath the Puu Honuaula Cone and very close to the initial fissures that opened during the 1955 eruption of Kilauea.

Upon analysis, the magma turned out to be dacite, a type of magma very different from the normally basaltic lavas that erupt from Kilauea Volcano. While the main component of almost all magmas is silica, what window glass is made of, dacite has a lot more of it than basalt.

So where did the dacite come from? We know that, during any eruption, not all of the magma that is transported through the volcano gets erupted. A significant portion is left within the rift zone. That magma slowly starts to cool and form crystals; because the crystals don’t use up the silica in the same proportion that exists in the magma, the remaining liquid magma becomes slowly more silica-rich.

Understanding this process helps us “see” where these magma storage areas are. When new eruptions occur, like the one in 1955, for example, the first lavas usually contain small amounts of these stored lavas. That’s because the new magma rose through these storage areas and carried some of the remaining more silica-rich magma along with it. As the eruption progresses, the lavas usually become “fresher” or more like the stuff that is originally supplied to the volcano.

There are several of these local storage areas within Kilauea volcano’s east rift zone and, based on these four examples, it doesn’t appear that drilling into one of them will start an eruption.

Kilauea activity update

A lava lake within the Halemaumau Overlook vent produced nighttime glow visible from the Jaggar Museum overlook and by HVO’s webcam during the past week. The lava level rose and fell slightly due to a string of deflation-inflation cycles at the summit and several brief gas-driven rise-fall cycles.

On Kilauea’s east rift zone, surface lava flows remain active high on the pali, within the upper part of the abandoned Royal Gardens subdivision, about 4.7 miles southeast of Puu Oo. The lava pond in the northeastern pit in Puu Oo crater was visible in the webcam over the past week, with the level fluctuating slightly in response to the DI events.

There were no earthquakes reported felt on the Island of Hawaii in the past week.

Visit hvo.wr.usgs.gov for detailed Kilauea, Mauna Loa and Hualalai activity updates, recent volcano photos, recent earthquakes and more; call 967-8862 for a Kilauea summary; email questions to askHVO@usgs.gov.

Volcano Watch is a weekly article and activity update written by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.