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La Soufriere eruption last Friday, 23 April 2021. (iWN photo)
La Soufriere eruption last Friday, 23 April 2021. (iWN photo)
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Linking geothermal energy exploration to the eruption of La Soufriere is like expecting a skin-deep injection to puncture one’s heart.

This was the analogy geologist Professor Richard Robertson used, on Friday, to address the question of whether the drilling on the slopes of La Soufriere last year could have resulted in the ongoing eruption.

In 2019, the government dug three wells on the slopes of the La Soufriere volcano as part of the geothermal energy project, but each failed to produce the required permeability.

The wells registered a temperature of 250 degrees Celsius, but the rocks did not have the level of porosity that would allow for converting that heat into electricity.

Then, in December 2020, after almost 42 years of inactivity, La Soufriere began erupting effusively, then exploded on April 9 – an eruption that continues to date.

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In one of his daily updates on the state-owned NBC Radio last week, Robertson was asked if there is any link between the geothermal drilling and the eruption of the volcano.

“It’s amazing how much that comes up and how much both myself and my colleagues in Seismic have addressed it,” he said.

“I think even before the Soufriere was active we were being asked about it and I have made the analogy that the geothermal, I look at it in the context of the human body and the source for the volcanism is like deep beneath the surface of your body, sort of your heart, right inside the core of your structure while the way in which you were tapping into geothermal is really tapping into the hot rocks that is heating fluids that is above that. 

“So it is a bit like sticking a needle into your skin and thinking that that needle sticking into your skin is somehow going to touch your heart. That’s how the dimensions are.”

Robertson said that the point is that the geothermal activity “was trying to get at circulating fluids at very shallow depths, compared to where the magma is coming from.”

He said that “the thing” that is driving the eruption is at least 10 kilometres (6 miles) beneath the surface of the earth.

“… the geothermal, the deepest well, I believe went down less than 3 kilometres (1.86 miles), 3,000 metres (9,842 feet).

“And what it was tapping was not the magma. It wasn’t getting anywhere close to any magma. The magma was deep below the surface. What it was tapping into was the hot rock…”

The geologist said that the magma would have heated the surrounding rock and that heated rock would then have heated circulating fluids.

“So you have a magma chamber and around it, for several kilometres, you have hot rock and then that hot rock would interact with water that came from above and that water would touch the hot rock that is around the magma chamber and that water would then be used to generate energy. So it is much further removed from the magma chamber itself.”

He said that accessing those hot rocks does not affect what is happening in the magma chamber.

“Geothermal has been successfully applied in areas that have on-going volcanic eruptions,” he said, naming Iceland as an example.

“Icelandic volcanoes erupt all the time, you have seen that, New Zealand… and they have serious geothermal operations and they don’t affect each other. Because they just operate at different levels. They operate at different depths and they interact with different kinds of materials than the magma.

“The magma chamber is deep beneath the surface and it’s operating based on time scales that have to do with plate tectonics, that have to do with the movement of tectonic plates on a larger scale than the geothermal is operating.

“So, it should have affected, I can’t see scientifically how it could have affected it. It’s not like you are drilling into the magma chamber. If you were doing that, I suggest to you that the drill would have been burnt and destroyed long before it gets anywhere close to the chamber. It would have been destroyed at the hot rock stage, not even the chamber.”

The professor, however, said he understood “why people think that, because it makes sense in the — you have a volcano, you drill into it then it explodes, then it must be connected.

“But, there are lots of things that happen together that are coincidental and not causative. It’s like saying the volcano erupts on a particular day in the year. The fact that it happens — if the volcano has been erupting on the 13th of April or the last 100 years, that doesn’t mean that it’s because of something. It is just coincidental.

“You have to prove that, and in the case of geothermal, both at this volcano and other volcanoes, there is no indication scientifically that they should affect each other in terms of getting a volcano going.  And certainly, in this case, we don’t think it did. I don’t know if that puts it to rest. I suggest I would keep on getting that question.  And that’s fine,” Robertson said.

Three of the last five eruptions of La Soufriere have occurred in April. 

11 replies on “No link between geothermal drilling, eruption — geologist”

  1. Urlan Alexander says:

    If the professor listened to the PM he would understand that the wells were did further than the depth he said they were. Also it was the professor who said that “something must have triggered it” in reference to the seismic activities that started late last year. Professor Robertson people listen and draw consions from what they hear.

  2. It may have exploded because the bore holes were not skin deep, they were at least three KM deep. The rocks and mantle were purposely cracked by pumping in water. That initial water and after abandonment, further table water would have eventually reached an area in the crust that would have become steam pressurised. No one including the learned professor knows what happened next. Did the drilling and cracking of mantle rock eventually cause a fracture that caused the tectonic plates to move and cause the current eruption. Did water or steam eventually reach the magma and cause an explosive eruption.

    With all due respect what Professor Richard Robertson has presented is only his opinion, an opinion that you can be sure was brought about by the comrade wanting to duck for cover from any outfall.

    There is lots of evidence that thermal drilling brought about eruptions in several parts of the World, including Iceland.

    No one can actually say that there is no link, the same as no one can be sure there is a link.

    This political support by people here to help as advisers should stop right now. There are some intelligent Vincentians who expect better.

  3. Grizelda Grimm says:

    If I remember correctly, drilling took place on several occasions covering a matter of months. On the last drilling session they did drill 3 bore holes.

    Not only did they drill the holes but to get a reaction, they stimulated the bore holes for several days. I am guessing that they did more than shove feather dusters down the holes.

    Vibrations carry large distances. Next time you sit in a bath tub flick the water and watch the vibrations spread

  4. Ricardo Francis says:

    I opposed this project from the beginning.

    I can recollect calling into the Radio programs, and indicating my position and the consequences of drilling.

    I knew this will be the result of the DRILLING. I was NOT wrong.

    All of the politicians in SVG, local and foreign entities, and persons who supported this project should be held criminally and civilly liable.

    We need a CRIMINAL investigation on the DRILLING of the volcano for GOETHERMAL ENERGY.

    The professor is simple one individual with an opinion. There are so many that share the view that DRILLING caused the eruption. I have listened to the professor very carefully, and he is ,indirectly, telling you that the volcano erupted because of the DRILLING.

    I am very fearless and courageous.

    I shall not and or shall never surrender and or waive my believes, now and or in the future.

    Ricardo Francis, Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in waiting and in the making

  5. I do wonder about Dr. Robertson’s explanations. As I look around the world where deep drilling takes place to access natural gas, there have been constant complaints of earthquakes erupting after recent drillings.
    The ULP regime in its attempt to mislead us for each of the last 3 elections has employed drilling at the volcano to give the impression to voters that they will soon get inexpensive thermal energy, as they also promised earlier will be coming from Venezuela.
    They wove such a tight web of deceit I do not see how they will untangle that.
    More than that we know in places like Pennsylvania and Texas in the USA each time drilling occurred there have been earthquakes. In SVG in 2010 there were drillings and there were earthquakes. I believe also in 2015. And we understand that earthquakes are connected to volcanic activity.. Of course, none of this is guaranteed, but anyone can clearly see the possibility.
    Trust your own eyes.

  6. Nathan 'Jolly' Green says:

    The amazing thing is the ULP Regime, the dynasty, the comrade, was very much aware that the volcano was due to erupt in January of 2017.

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