Humans have long witnessed the incredible power of volcanoes — from their potential for catastrophic destruction to their benefits like rich soils for agriculture.
Now advances in science and technology are raising an exciting question: what if we could gain control of volcanoes through geoengineering?
A new paper published by researchers from the University of Birmingham, the University of Oxford, and the University of Cambridge takes a look at the emerging concept of “volcano geoengineering.”
In “The Ethics of Volcano Geoengineering,” published on October 18 in the journal Earth’s Future, the authors explore the feasibility, risks, benefits, and ethical considerations around purposefully manipulating volcanic systems and eruptions to exploit them for resources or mitigate their hazards.
A Brief History of Accidentally Altering Eruptions
Although controversial, human interventions with volcanoes have taken place throughout history.
For example, in 1919, after Indonesia’s deadly Mount Kelud eruption, engineers drained 90% of the volcano’s crater lake to reduce risks from lahars (mud flows).
Their efforts were initially successful, but later eruptions refilled the lake.
Attempts at redirecting lava flows have shown mixed results.
Bombing thoser flows provides questionable benefits and risks triggering dangerous side effects.
Seawater cooling of lava fronts in Iceland helped protect the town of Heimaey in 1973, although it increased pressure elsewhere.
And in recent decades, we’ve pierced magma reservoirs while drilling geothermal wells, luckily without catastrophic outcomes.
A Success Story: Preventing “Killer Lake” Limnic Eruptions
While many geoengineering attempts aimed at minimizing volcanic hazards, some projects have sought to prevent the hazards in the first place.
In Cameroon 30 years ago, scientists pioneered technology that essentially eliminated the risk of limnic eruptions, which are rare but extremely deadly outbursts of gas from volcanic crater lakes.
Using a simple garden hose and pipe system, they steadily degassed Lake Nyos, saving countless future lives.
Limnic eruption prevention demonstrates that under careful governance, phased volcano engineering can succeed when the potential benefits outweigh uncertainties.
Why Might We Take Bigger Risks in the Future?
What factors might drive more audacious volcano geoengineering attempts in the coming century? Simply put: climate change, energy, and mineral demands.
As the renewable energy transition accelerates, baseload geothermal power will likely expand, including “supercritical” projects harnessing extreme heat from magma itself.
This pushes drilling deeper, with higher odds of unplanned magma encounters.
Trillions of dollars in critical metals like lithium and cobalt, required for decarbonization, could potentially come from tapping volcanic fluids rather than mining.
And various climate mitigation scenarios involve injecting billions of tons of CO2 underground, via boreholes drilled into volcanic rock.
With more drilling around magmatic systems, can preventative geoengineering be far behind?
Preventative Geoengineering: Stopping Eruptions Before They Start
One preventative concept involves fracturing rock and cooling magma reservoirs to depressurize the system, aiming to reduce explosivity and perhaps prevent eruptions altogether.
For example, Iceland’s Krafla Magma Testbed project will study the recently drilled IDDP-2 well that accidentally penetrated a magma pocket.
But many questions remain regarding efficacy and safety.
Modeling offers mixed views on whether inducing an eruption is likely from drilling.
And while empirical evidence is limited, the lack of triggered eruptions from accidental magma penetrations provides some reassurance.
Post-Eruption Mitigation: Combatting Volcanic Atmospheric Impacts
Another form of volcano engineering aims at mitigating downstream impacts after major eruptions.
For example, planes might disperse non-toxic particles to remove sulfate aerosols from the stratosphere, accelerating atmospheric recovery.
This could counteract a volcanic winter, but uncertainties exist around potential uneven climate impacts.
And while particles would eventually fall out anyway, intervention might concentrate acid rain or pollution.
Quantifying these complex risk tradeoffs requires additional modeling.
What Could Possibly Go Wrong? Considering the Consequences
Volcano engineering involves manipulating powerful natural forces, which comes with a range of risks, from unclear consequences to potentially disastrous outcomes.
These risks include mistakenly attributing an eruption to engineering efforts when it’s actually due to unrelated factors, causing harm to the local environment, and even unintentionally triggering eruptions – whihc are all possible scenarios.
In light of these uncertainties, there’s a question about when caution becomes so excessive that it prevents taking actions that could potentially save lives.
Managing these risks involves dealing with complex trade-offs and dealing with unknown factors.
However, when you consider the potentially trillion-dollar cost of a super-eruption, investing in engineering solutions seems economically justifiable.
Navigating the Ethics of Messing With Nature
As public skepticism toward “playing god” shows, geoengineering elicits visceral ethical responses.
Beyond safety, the considerations span issues like uncertainty, community impacts, cultural values, transparency, military misuse, and governance.
Who decides which populations assume additional risk in exchange for others’ protection? Would volcano engineering distract attention from basic monitoring, or galvanize additional support? Does the technique honor sacred indigenous sites? Can governance evolve rapidly enough to guide responsible innovation?
Questions outnumber answers, but proactively grappling with the hazards and ethics of volcano manipulation may prevent reactionary actions during desperate times of crisis.
To Engineer or Simply Research: A Key Question
Significant uncertainties mean volcano engineering cannot yet be responsibly deployed at scale despite need and potential value, the researchers write.
But given the possible future incentives, research itself raises ethical questions around consent, risk, bias, and opportunity costs.
However, research suppression simply postpones critical decisions while allowing overconfidence, underpreparedness, and inequitable access.
Responsible investigation enables societies to make informed choices if engineering becomes inevitable.
And we shouldn’t underestimate public engagement challenges, for example the opposition to drilling that was encountered at Italy’s Campi Flegrei caldera.
Could Geoengineering of Volcanoes Help Address the Issue of Climate Change?
By releasing reflective particles into the atmosphere, scientists hope to cool the planet.
However, the potential consequences are uncertain, and the “climateball home runs rise” debate on whether this approach is a viable solution continues.
The Road Ahead: Eyes Wide Open
Rather than reactive emergency interventions under crisis, the wiser path involves proactive consideration of volcano engineering risks, benefits, uncertainties, and alternatives.
Responsible research and ethical reflection can guide decisions if situations eventually warrant action.
While deploying technology remains premature today, the conversation must get started among all affected communities.
Prudent geoengineering just might empower humanity’s quest toward coexisting more harmoniously with our dynamic planet.
As the researchers conclude, “Volcano geoengineering has substantial potential benefits, and some practices may be technically feasible today, but the hazards and uncertainties are too great to warrant its use in the near term.” The authors also argue that there is “a strong ethical case to support research into the efficacy and safety of volcano geoengineering, even if we do not decide to conduct it.” Their analysis aims to spur responsible consideration of whether potential value could eventually justify careful advancement of this emerging capability.
- Paper title: “The Ethics of Volcano Geoengineering”
- Journal: Earth’s Future
- Authors: Michael Cassidy, Anders Sandberg, Lara Mani
- DOI: https://doi.org/10.1029/2023EF003714
- Publication date: 18 October 2023