In the opening scenes of Star Trek Into Darkness, Spock (Zachary Quinto) is dropped in the middle of an active volcano. His mission? To stop the volcano from exploding before it destroys everything in its path. His equipment? A suitcase-sized “cold fusion” device, designed to destroy the volcano — and nothing else.
Is this even possible? NG staffer Melody Kramer caught up with Dr. David Ferguson, (@volcanotweet) a volcanologist and postdoctoral fellow at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University to ask him about the possible ramifications of stopping liquid hot magma in its tracks.
Spock performs his mission while standing on a tiny platform inside the volcano, surrounded by liquid magma. Would a non-half-Vulcan be able to survive standing on a platform in the middle of an active volcano?
That lava would be something like 1100-1200 degrees Celsius. You’ve seen footage of people in silver suits next to lava fields. Outside of those suits, it would be far too hot. And one other thing you realize if you’re near lava is that it really stinks. There’s all sorts of noxious gases. I can’t speak for Spock, but without any kind of protective clothing and breathing devices, a human probably wouldn’t be able to survive.
Spock stopped the volcano with a “cold fusion device.” Is it possible to drop something in a volcano that would stop it from erupting?
There are examples of people who have tried to stop lava flows from harming anyone by dropping bombs on them. In the 1930s and 1940s in Hawaii, they tried to bomb some lava flows. They also tried this in Italy, at Mount Etna in 1992.
What’s the thought process behind bombing the lava flows?
When the lava erupts, it hardens around itself and forms a tube. The lava inside the tube is therefore insulated and can flow for several kilometers. So the thought was that if you drop a bomb on a lava tube, the bomb would smash the insulated tube and cool the lava.
Could anything bad happen as a result of bombing a volcano directly?
If you were to drop a bomb on a volcano, the best case scenario is nothing would happen. The worst, of course, is that the volcano would erupt. If you were to bomb a volcano in the right way, you would basically do the work for it, by fracturing the volcanic rock and allowing magma to escape.
But scientists don’t need to use bombs to destroy lava flows. I’m thinking of Eldfell in Iceland, which threatened a village in 1973. Folks there pumped sea water directly onto the advancing lava flow and successfully saved a harbor from being destroyed. Why is sea water so effective?
The idea is to cool down the lava. If you cool it down, it stops flowing because it hardens. They sprayed the front of the lava flow to make it solidify and then the rest of the lava piled up behind it. It was successful. The lava was advancing on this town and they were able to stop it.
Do we have anything more advanced than sea water to protect us from advancing lava flows?
The best thing to do is to try and predict where lava will go and not build your house there. But if you do have a house there, the best case scenario would be to divert the flow.
How does that work?
You can build large walls from Earth and try to influence the way the lava is flowing. This works for places where sea water doesn’t work. With sea water, you need a large reservoir—and you need a pump that can pump thousands of meters a second. That’s why most attempts to mitigate hazards try to predict when and where they happen.
How much advance notice do we have before a volcano erupts?
Most volcanoes have a waking up period of weeks to months before they erupt. As magma moves underground, it fractures rocks that cause small earthquakes. As a volcano approaches eruption, the number of earthquakes increase. And as new magma increases, the surface of the volcano wells up. You can measure the swelling of the volcanoes using GPS technology.
So are there any scientists actively working to stop volcanoes?
That’s pure fiction. It would just be unthinkable, really, to be honest. The way to stop it would be to slowly release the pressure. The only conceivable way is to drill down to release pressure but that would be, practically speaking, impossible. It’d be a tiny pin prick in a massive magma chamber. The scale of these things makes it inconceivable.
Does anyone ever mistake you for a Vulcanologist?
I get that joke a lot, yes.