The effort sounds like the opening to a lost Godzilla movie that was never made, but the researchers involved in the government-run Geological Survey of Japan project are serious – deadly serious. A work crew of 15 will use a $17 million, 164-foot-high oil-rig-like derrick perched on the scrubby slopes of Mount Unzen to begin drilling through the volcano’s crust next week and sample the magma bubbling below. This 4,875-foot dome volcano on the southern island of Kyushu erupted in 1991 and showered avalanches of hot rocks over a nearby town. The eruption killed 43 people and left nearly 2,300 homeless; another 11,000 people were evacuated from the area until the volcano stabilized in 1995. Past probes have either sampled surface magma or the cold, stony centers of long dead volcano ranges. The current project is the world’s first attempt to tap the magma at the core of a volcano that has recently blown its top. Boring into the glowing 1300-degree magma at subterranean levels requires a slurry of water to be pumped into the drill shaft to cool the magma and allow the drill head to cut through.
Drilling will begin at altitude of 2,780 feet on its northwest slope. Scientists hope to tap a magma vent around sea level by August and extract a 656-foot-long core sample by summer 2004.
The aim of the research is to study how the liquefied rock begets menacing gas buildup, said team leader Setsuya Nakata, of the University of Tokyo’s Earthquake Research Institute. “Gassing is important because it controls the explosivity of eruptions,” Nakata said after Thursday’s launch party. “The results can be expanded to anti-disaster research.” The results are particularly important to a nation like Japan, where the meteorological agency monitors 20 dangerous peaks. Perhaps Japan’s most famous volcano is snowcapped Mount Fuji, which last erupted in 1707 and sprinkled Tokyo with ash. Nakata said there is no danger of the current drilling triggering another eruption, but he said the research crew could be imperiled if swelling gas pressure inside the mountain causes the cooling water to violently explode outward. “We are taking many precautions, so we hope it goes safely,” Nakata said. And of course, they hope Godzilla doesn’t make an appearance, either.