RESEARCH SERIES #3
By Arie Altena
We have been studying the sky and the stars at least since Sumerian times. Looking up in the sky we look back into time. Our most advanced telescopes detect radiation from the birth of the universe – the birth of time. Beyond that there is nothing to see. We have ventured far into outer space. Voyager 1, dispatched by NASA in 1977, has left our solar system, entered interstellar space, and at a distance of approximately 19 billion kilometres from the Sun, is still transmitting data to Earth. What do we know about the ground below our feet? It is a cliché to state that we know more about the Moon than about the deep sea, but how much do we actually know about what is underground? We know about the composition of the Earth’s crust, mantle and core through remote geophysical methods. Seismic waves travel throughout the Earth, and from the behaviour of those waves we can infer the composition of the material through which they travel. We can ‘listen’ to the Earth to discover what is inside. But how deep have we actually looked into the interior of the Earth? Not very far, it seems. The deepest holes we have ever excavated only penetrate about one-third of the crust. We have never drilled deep enough to reach the mantle on which the continental and oceanic crusts rest.
Deep drilling is apparently as complex and adventurous as sending rockets into outer space, and it is likewise a feat of engineering. One problem is that the deeper you drill the hotter it gets. Temperatures easily go up to 200 degrees Celsius. Standard drilling equipment cannot handle such temperatures.
One reason we know more about the planets in our solar system and the stars than about the Earth's interior might be because our fascination for what is ‘up there’ is far greater than our interest in what is ‘down below’. Culturally what is ‘down below’ is identified with the dark and sinister: it’s the realm of the devil while ‘up there’ has generally been regarded as the realm of light and God. The charm of the subterranean has its own cultural history – Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Ludvig Holberg's Niels Klim's Underground Travels, and stories about mining by the German Romantics are well known examples. Yet, the subterranean imagination does not match the allure of what is up and out there.
The deepest natural cave that humans have descended into is the Krubera Cave in the Caucasus: 2197 metres underground. The deepest gold mines are now operating at depths over 3 kilometres, with the South African TauTona goldmine reaching 3900 metres. When we dig deep, it is usually for money: to extract from the Earth valuable minerals, oil and gas. We use these crushed dinosaurs and prehistoric plants to fuel our economy and lives. Fittingly for the current state of our world, the deepest boreholes are drilled for oil and gas. The current record, set in June 2013, is the Z-42 borehole on Sakhalin Island off the East Russian coast, which has a depth of 12,700 metres (source).
Drilling deep is like inserting a telescope into the Earth. If you extract drill cores, you can see what is down there. We drill deep for science as well. At the moment scientific deep-drilling programmes occur out at sea. Whereas the much older continental crust can be between 25 and 70 kilometres thick, the oceanic crust is only 7 to 10 kilometres thick, so the mantle can be more easily reached. The first geologic deep-drilling programme at sea was the American Project Mohole, which aimed at drilling through the Earth crust to the Mohorovičić discontinuity, the boundary between crust and mantle. It started in 1961 as a geologic counterpart to the space race, but was stopped for lack of funding in 1966. It was continued in the Deep Sea Drilling programme, which is now the Integrated Ocean Drilling Programme. The deepest borehole in the ocean reached a depth of 3056 metres below the sea floor in May 2014.
Tower of the Kola Superdeep Borehole in September 2007. Photo by Andre Belozeroff, source
Kola Superdeep Borehole in summer 2008. Photo © andrusha084, source
Until 2008 the Kola Superdeep Borehole near the Russian mining town Zapolyarny on the Kola Peninsula was the deepest borehole in the world. No borehole is as legendary as the Kola Superdeep, which really was a telescope probing the Earth. It was drilled since the 1970s in the framework of the former Soviet Union’s programme ‘Investigation of the Continental Crust by Means of Deep Drilling’. The deepest of its boreholes, the SG-3, reached a final depth of 12,262 metres in 1989 (sometimes 12,261 is given as the correct depth. Note that the current record is just marginally deeper.)
There are not many superdeep boreholes in the continental crust that are drilled for science. Apparently the only superdeep one accessible at the moment is the KTB superdeep borehole in Windeseschenbach in northern Bavaria, Germany. It was drilled to a depth of 9101 metres between 1990 and 1994 by the German Continental Deep Drilling Program, reaching depths with temperatures of more than 260 degrees Celsius.
The Kola Superdeep is drilled at a spot that is called Vilgiskoddeoayvinyarvi, or ‘Wolf Lake on the Mountains’. The Sami are the indigenous inhabitants of this subarctic area in Russia, just across the border with Norway. Dotted with open iron ore and nickel mines and watched over by enormous smelters in the mining towns Zapolyarny and Nickel, it is a bleak, heavily polluted landscape. Even now foreign tourists are forbidden from leaving the main roads – though most likely nobody will stop you from doing so.
Screenshot of the exact location of the Kola Superdeep on the satellite image of Google.
When the plans for the Kola Superdeep were formulated at the end of the 1960s, Cold War competition drove geological research. When drilling near Zapolyarny began in 1970, in honour of the 100th anniversary of Lenin’s birth, the Russians were eager to smash the record for the deepest borehole. In 1979 the world record for drilling depth – 9583 metres, held since 1974 by the Bertha Rogers hole in Washita County, Oklahoma – was broken by the Kola Superdeep. In 1983, the drill passed 12,000 metres, but after reaching 12,066 metres on 27 September 1984, the drill broke down. Repairing the damage took ages, as new equipment had to be built. Drilling was eventually resumed from a depth of 7 kilometres, but slow progress over subsequent years can also be attributed to the difficulties they encountered drilling at such great depth.
Rock from a depth of 12,260 metres. Samples from the SG3. Photo: superdeep.pechenga.ru
The 12-kilometre mark has been reached. The plan was to continue until a depth of 15 kilometres. Photo: superdeep.pechenga.ru, source
Archive of the rock samples from the Kola Superdeep in Zapolyarny, 2005. Photo: superdeep.pechenga.ru, source
The Kola Superdeep in better times, early 1970s. Photo: superdeep.pechenga.ru, source
In 1989 the SG-3 borehole with a diameter of 92 centimetres at the top and 21.5 centimetres at the bottom, reached a final depth of 12,262 metres. A depth of 15 kilometres had been set as the target, with estimations that they would reach 13,500 metres by the end of 1990, and 15 kilometres in 1993. But they encountered serious difficulties: temperatures in this location and at this depth were as high as 180 degrees Celsius instead of the expected 100. Meanwhile the Soviet Union was dissolved, and funding for fundamental scientific research shrank. Drilling deeper was finally deemed unfeasible and was stopped in 1992.
The reason geologists chose Kola as the location for superdeep drilling is that the Fennoscandian Shield consists of very old rock, in some places the Precambrian crystalline igneous rock is exposed on the surface. Drilling deeper reaches even older rock, and enables us to see even further back into the history of the Earth. The Kola borehole encountered 2.7 billion-year-old rocks at 12 kilometres depth. The primary scientific goal of the Kola Superdeep was fundamental geological research. The secondary goal was the prediction of natural disasters based on analysing bore cores. The Soviet Union proposed creating a network of superdeep boreholes, distributed throughout the Soviet Union: Globus. It would monitor global tectonic activity to predict earthquakes and other natural disasters. Boreholes were planned, and sometimes started, for example, in Komi, in western and eastern Siberia, near the Caspian Sea, in the Dnepr-Don region, the Caucasus and Turkmenistan. These are all mineral-rich areas, and gathering geological data that aids in identifying new oil fields and mineral deposits certainly played a role in choosing these locations.
Geologically one of the more important findings to emerge from the Kola Superdeep was that gneiss was found at 7 kilometres depth. Gneiss is metamorphic rock that forms under high temperatures and pressure. At this depth the geological models assumed a transition from granite to basalt because of a discontinuity in seismic waves. The change in seismic velocities, however, turned out to be caused by the metamorphic transition in the granite rock. Even more surprising was that rock at that depth had been thoroughly fractured and was saturated with water. This could imply that water was part of the chemical composition of the rock minerals themselves and had been forced out of the crystals and prevented from rising by an overlying cap of impermeable rock. Other finds were that the rock at a depth of 3 kilometres was similar to rocks from the moon, and at 10 kilometres, in 2.5 billion-year-old rock, fossils of organisms were found, contradicting the scientific ideas of the day.
Chart of the Kola Superdeep Borehole. Source
From 1994 the director of the Kola Superdeep, Dr Huberman, continued research at onsite laboratories with significantly reduced funding. But the new governments were less and less interested in the Kola Superdeep. The plan to set up a network of superdeep boreholes was long forgotten, and the willingness to finance fundamental geological research faded away. International funding could not save the Kola Superdeep. After years of setbacks, the site shut down in 2008 – the laboratories were abandoned, the equipment and metal scrapped. For a few years there was still a small office in Zapolyarny, but even that has disappeared. The drilling tower has collapsed. What remains is a ruin.
The end of a legend, July 2009. Photo © andrusha084, source
Obliteration of history, July 2009. Photo © andrusha084, source
Kola Superdeep Borehole in August 2013. Photo © Andrej Evsegneev, source
‘History should be conserved’, Kola Superdeep in August 2013. Photo © Andrej Evsegneev, source
What also remains is an urban legend, the ‘Well to Hell’ hoax. It originated with a Norwegian teacher who wanted to check the gullibility of his Christian American friends. To his surprise the story spread via the Christian fundamentalist media to the tabloids. According to this tale the drilling at the Kola Superdeep had to stop when they hit a hollow space and measured extremely high temperatures. A microphone was lowered into the borehole, and picked up horrifying screams. They had drilled all the way to hell. The story can be found in various versions and guises all over the Internet. It includes dubious ‘documentaries’ on Youtube, and remixes of the sounds of hell – which are actually based on a sound recording made for fun by geologists at the Kola Superdeep. The hoax is usually the hook for documentaries and magazine articles on the Kola Superdeep – illustrated with pictures of the ruins.
The ‘Well to Hell’ hoax is easily recognisable as a scam. Rather more disturbing are pseudo-scientific articles that begin by summarising reliable geological knowledge, go on to refer to the surprising geological findings of the Kola Superdeep and the difficulties of drilling further than 12 kilometres, and then use these as a rhetorical devices to convince the reader of the impotence of science and the truth of the Bible (see Emil Silvestru, ‘Water inside Fire’, Journal of Creation
, vol. 22 no. 1, 2008).
The last research team to work at the Kola Superdeep did lower sound recording devices into the borehole. But what they recorded at 3 kilometres depth (the deepest borehole of 12 kilometres was long since inaccessible) were not the sounds of hell. They did detect variances in sound levels that were quite mysterious at first. After several recordings it was evident that the variances were very regular. They posed several hypotheses, ruled out the possibility that the device might have been recording itself, and after a while had to conclude that there was only one possibility left: at 3 kilometres deep they were picking up vibrations of activity at open mines around Zapolyarny. The variances in sound levels coincided exactly with the workshifts. Anthropocene sound pollution travels 3 kilometres deep (see A. S. Belyakov (e.a.) ‘New Results of Monitoring Acoustic Noise in the Kola Superdeep Borehole’ Doklady Earth Sciences, January–February 2007, vol. 412, no. 1, pp. 97–100, http://www.springerlink.com/index/WP261XR0776NJ944.pdf
How important were the findings from the Kola Superdeep? Responding to a journalist who wanted to know the most important outcome of the Kola Superdeep project, geologist Vladimir Belousov is reported to have exclaimed: ‘Lord! Importantly it showed that we do not know anything about the continental crust’ (quoted in www.vokrugsveta.ru/vs/article/417/
. Tragically, almost none of the research results from the Kola Superdeep left the Soviet Union. The location was secret, the area remote and restricted. However, in 1984 geologists from around the world who were invited to the 27th Geological Congress in Moscow were flown to Murmansk and travelled by bus to the Kola Superdeep. A booklet was published in Russian and English to introduce and promote the research (see item 1. under ‘Delving Deeper’). It was only after the break-up of the Soviet Union that scientific articles started appearing outside Russia. In the 1990s two books with scientific papers were translated from Russian to English and published by Springer Verlag (see item 7 under ‘Delving Deeper’). They were difficult reading even by scientific standards.
The Kola Superdeep has captured the imagination more than any other borehole or geological research. Since it is a ruin, it lives on as a legend. The site could have been a museum and tourist destination, paying homage to fundamental scientific inquiry – even without glorifying the research. It could have been monument to the human yearning to know what the Earth is made of. Here’s a borehole, 12 kilometres deep. We used it, not to extract oil to fuel our cars, but to know what is there. One wonders how much this hole – now closed by a rusty metal cap – would be worth if it was a piece of land art by Walter de Maria. On the other hand, that it is a ruin, abandoned and crumbling, presents a powerfully poetic image that invites reflection on the value of scientific research. We might know more about what is inside the Earth through seismic measurements, but we have never been able to see further into the Earth than we did with the Kola Superdeep.
Kola Superdeep Borehole in 2012. Author: Bigest, source
The secured borehole in 2012. Author: Rakot13, source
A visit to Yuri Smirnov, geologist at the Kola Superdeep
By Arie Altena
In 2012 I visited the border region between Norway and Russia for the first time, with Hilde Methi, Lucas van der Velden and Annette Wolfsberger. Roman Khorolisov, born and bred in Nikel, was our guide on the Russian side. Somehow I had found out that one of the deepest boreholes was located in the hills between Zapolyarny and Nikel: the Kola Superdeep. Though Roman knew about it, it had not captured his imagination as much as much as it had ours. We visited the local museum in Nikel, which not only has a large exhibition dedicated to the Second World War (it still brings many German war tourists to the region), but also a room dedicated to the Kola Superdeep, with photos, rock samples, and geological maps. Roman only had a rough idea of where the Superdeep was located. On our way to Zapolyarny we took an unpaved side road near a mysterious antenna, and continued driving along it for several kilometres, thinking we were on the right road. The weather deteriorated and the thickening snow halted our progress. In the distance we could see a tower, but it was one of the mines and not the Kola Superdeep. We were still fairly close to the site, which was probably just a kilometre and a half away on the other side of the hill, but we couldn’t find it. To make up for not finding the Kola Superdeep we visited an abandoned open mine.
May 2012. We thought we were on the right road to the Kola Superdeep. The weather made it impossible to continue by car. The Kola Superdeep was just a kilometre and a half away on the other side of the hills but we couldn’t find it. Photo: Arie Altena
In 2013 we returned to Zapolyarny, and visited Yuri Smirnov. Smirnov was the head of geological research on the Kola Superdeep team. He had analysed the extracted rock from bore cores. Newspaper articles from the 1980s and 1990s usually introduced him as the scientist who hands a journalist a rock exclaiming enthusiastically: ‘This comes from 12 kilometres deep, imagine!’ Since the former director of the Kola Superdeep, Dr Huberman, died a few years ago, Smirnov is the person to interview about the Kola Superdeep.
Geologist Yuri Smirnov with the archive of rocks. Photo: superdeep.pechenga.ru, source
Smirnov greeted us eagerly, extremely happy that people had finally come to enquire about this work. Over the past few years, he said, no one had come to find out about the Kola Superdeep, nobody seemed to care anymore. He welcomed us into his small flat in Zapolyarny. Geological maps covered the walls, the bookshelves overflowed with rocks and geological papers. They also held his collection of mugs, various paraphernalia, and a portrait of Stalin.
Chart of the Kola Superdeep Borehole in Yuri Smirnov’s flat, 2013. Photo: Annette Wolfsberger
Yuri Smirnov shows his photographs, 2013. Photo: Annette Wolfsberger
Yuri Smirnov shows the photo taken when the 11-kilometre mark was reached. Photo: Annette Wolfsberger
Yuri Smirnov in front of his shelves with rocks. Photo: Annette Wolfsberger
A gift made in 1984 with rock samples from the Kola Superdeep. Photo: Annette Wolfsberger
An old man, living alone with his many memories, Smirnov was actually just as eager to talk about his World War II experiences as about the Kola Superdeep. As a 13-year-old boy he ran away from home to fight in the north in the Second World War. Smirnov is a joyful and colourful character. He showed his photographs, recited his poetry – including poems about the Kola Superdeep – talked about his collection of mugs, while Roman Khorolisov interjected with our questions we had prepared. Questions that – in retrospect – he’d probably already answered many times.
Smirnov came to the Kola Superdeep in September 1970, just after the drilling had started, on 24 May. He was born in Mirhorod in Ukraine and went to university in Chisinau, now Moldavia. In Kola he was appointed Deputy Chief Geologist, and as such was the head of the laboratory of geological and geophysical research. Proudly he told us that he was awarded a medal honouring Vladimir Lenin for his work. We asked him why they chose a spot near Zapolyarny for the deep drilling programme.
‘Because here a borehole would pass through the most ancient layers of rock. That is why they chose the Baltic shield, and not a location in Ukraine or elsewhere. This is where the surface is closest to the mantle, and deep drilling would go through different layers of the most ancient rock.’
‘Are there similar locations elsewhere?’
‘A similar location exists in Canada. But the location in Kola was also chosen because the geological research would simultaneously reveal the structure of the Pechenga copper and nickel fields. That was important, as the existing mines were beginning to be exhausted.’ He continued to explain the history of mining in the area: ‘Nickel exploitation around Nikel was opened up through research by Finnish geologists, and was first developed by a Canadian company. It was only after the Nazis were expelled from Russia that the territory became part of the Russian Pechenga region; from 1922 till 1944 it was Finnish. At that time geologists were drilling for minerals as well, but they did not find new sources. This can happen. When we started drilling the Kola Superdeep, we crossed two ore-bearing strata in less than a year. I documented those layers.’
‘Do you consider reaching the depth of more than 12 kilometres the main achievement of the Kola Superdeep?’
‘Of course. It was such a difficult engineering problem. The main goal of the project however was to study the structure of the crust. It was believed that there were three layers – sedimentary, granite and basalt – that all lie on top of the mantle. This was just a hypothesis at the time, based on seismic data. What we found was that at a depth where we expected a transition of granite to basalt, there was no such transition. That was a very important discovery. A second aim of the project was to predict any kind of environmental or natural disaster. So the main goals were about structure and foresight.’
‘Wasn’t there a plan to set up a network of boreholes throughout the Soviet Union, or even the entire Earth?’
‘Yes, this was project Globus. We offered it to the world. Geologists from all over the world came to visit us when Moscow hosted the 27th Geological Congress. They came because the members of the Congress set one condition: it could only take place if they visited Kola. The idea behind Globus was also to research the structure of the continental crust, of course.’
After leaving the Kola Superdeep Borehole, Smirnov continued to work in the Altai Mountains, in Karelia, and in Apatity on the Kola Peninsula. He is retired now. That the site of the Kola Superdeep is a ruin fills him with sadness. He deplores the lack of money for fundamental research as tragic, especially because it would not have been that expensive to continue researching at the Kola Superdeep, had it been kept in working condition. There were two unique sets of drills, made in Yekaterinenburg – then Sverdlovsk – that according to him could have penetrated to a depth of 15 kilometres. ‘Alas’, he said, ‘there is no interest, all the resources have shifted to drilling for oil and gas in the Barents Sea – where they use the knowledge of drilling gained at the Kola Superdeep. This is where they put the money.’ On the question of we should continue explorations like the one undertaken at the Kole Superdeep he replied with a resounding ‘Yes’.
Yuri Smirnov shows his medals at the end of our visit in June 2013. (In the background is his brother, a former professional wrestler, who was visiting for the first time in many years; Yuri Smirnov's collection of mugs is to the right). Photo: Annette Wolfsberger
Yuri Smirnov with a mug depicting the devil below the Kola Superdeep. Sitting next to him is his brother. Photo Annette Wolfsberger
One of Yuri Smirnov’s mugs, depicting an angel in the sky above the Kola Superdeep and a devil below. Photo: Annette Wolfsberger
Above his couch hangs a painting showing the Kola Superdeep site, the borehole, with the devil at the bottom of the borehole. Smirnov commissioned it. In his collection of coffee mugs there is one with a similar picture. He finds its absurd that people actually believe in a hell with a devil. He believes in science, in the possibility of finding out more, and the potential of fundamental research to enrich our understanding of the Earth. As a poet Smirnov probably understands the power of images and how an image sticks in the human mind. The bogus story of ‘drilling to hell’ has stuck in people’s memories, and along with its record-breaking depth, has helped to make the Kola Superdeep a legend in media-saturated minds, when it really should be because of the geological findings.
Part of this research was generously funded by the Mondriaan Foundation in 2013. Many thanks to Roman Khoroshilov and Pavel Borisov.