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Taming volcanoes

June 8, 2008
Courtesy InderScience Publishers
and World Science staff

Un­like, say, un­con­trolled fires, vol­ca­no erup­tions sel­dom meet con­cert­ed re­sist­ance from hu­mans. The pri­mal pow­er of Earth burst­ing open, usual­ly, just does­n’t seem a mat­ter for pro­duct­ive ar­gu­ment.

But that situation might change, if one re­search­er has his way. R.D. Schui­l­ing of Geochem Re­search in Nieu­we­gein, The Neth­er­lands, pro­poses dump­ing lime­stone blocks in the way of stream­ing la­va as a way to slow it down, lim­it its reach and save lives.

Volcanoes form and erupt when molt­en rock lurk­ing in un­der­ground re­ser­voirs breaks though weak spots in the Earth's crust. (Im­age cre­dit: USGS Ha­waii­an Vol­ca­no Ob­serv­a­tory)


Hot la­va, or mol­ten rock, un­der­goes a strong chem­i­cal re­ac­tion with lime­stone, not­ed Schui­l­ing, writ­ing in the cur­rent is­sue of the In­terna­t­ional Jour­nal of Glob­al En­vi­ron­men­tal Is­sues

The pro­cess, which re­leases car­bon di­ox­ide, typ­ic­ally oc­curs at around 1,100-1,200 de­grees Cel­si­us (2,000-2,200 Fah­ren­heit), he added. Im­por­tant­ly, the re­ac­tion uses up heat, he noted. This caus­es the la­va to quickly cool down, so that it so­lid­i­fies more quick­ly; even if it does­n’t so­lid­i­fy, it would still be­come thick­er and slow­er.

Schuil­ing is a geochem­i­cal en­gi­neer, some­one who stud­ies the use of nat­u­ral pro­cesses to solve en­vi­ron­men­tal and civ­il en­gi­neering prob­lems.

At­tempts to con­trol vol­ca­no erup­tions aren’t new.

In 1973, Ice­landers had some suc­cess slow­ing la­va from Mt. El­d­fell by dous­ing it with vast amounts of sea­wa­ter. And the town of Zaf­fer­ana in Sicily was suc­cessfully pro­tected from Mt. Et­na’s 1991-1993 erup­tion cy­cle by huge earth­en walls built to di­vert the la­va, Schui­l­ing not­ed.

Schuil­ing sug­gests large chunks of lime­stone could be thrown on to la­va from the sides, or from above by he­li­copters or air­planes, or even by an aer­i­al ca­ble sys­tem pass­ing over the flow. An al­ter­na­tive might be to quickly sur­round the flow with a wall of lime­stone blocks, he added; such walls could even be con­structed pre-emp­tively in high-risk ar­eas.


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Unlike, say, uncontrolled fires, volcano eruptions seldom meet concerted resistance from humans. The primal power of Earth bursting open just doesn’t seem to invite argument. But that might change, if one researcher has his way. R.D. Schuiling of Geochem Research in Nieuwegein, The Netherlands, proposes dumping limestone blocks in the way of streaming lava as a way to slow it down, limit its reach and save lives. Hot lava, or molten rock, undergoes a strong chemical reaction with limestone, noted Schuiling, writing in the current issue of the International Journal of Global Environmental Issues. The process, which releases carbon dioxide, typically occurs at around 1,100-1,200 degrees Celsius (2,000-2,200 Celsius), he added. Importantly, the reaction uses up heat, he added. Thus the lava would quickly cool down, so that it solidifies more quickly; even if it doesn’t solidify, it would still become more viscous, or thick, and thus slower-moving. Schuiling is a geochemical engineer, someone who studies the use of natural processes to solve environmental and civil engineering problems. Attempts to control volcano eruptions aren’t new. In 1973, Icelanders had some success slowing lava from Mt. Eldfell by dousing it with vast amounts of seawater. And the town of Zafferana in Sicily was successfully protected from Mt. Etna’s 1991-1993 eruption cycle by huge earth walls built to divert the lava flow, Schuiling noted. Schuiling suggests large chunks of limestone could be thrown on to lava from the sides, or from above by helicopters or airplanes, or even by an aerial cable system passing over the flow. An alternative might be to quickly surround the flow with a wall of limestone blocks, he added; such walls could even be constructed pre-emptively in high-risk areas.