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The deepest hole we have ever dug

The lakes, forests, mists and snow of the Kola Peninsula deep in the Arctic Circle can make this corner of Russia seem like a scene from a fairy tale. Yet amidst the natural beauty stand the ruins of an abandoned Soviet scientific research station. In the middle of the crumbling building is a heavy, rusty metal cap embedded in the concrete floor, secured by a ring of thick and equally rusty metal bolts.

在北极圈内的科拉半岛(Kola Peninsula),湖泊、森林、雾霭和积雪,使俄罗斯的这个角落看起来仿若童话中的天地。然而,在这片自然美景中却有一片废墟,这是一个废弃的苏联科研站。在这栋破败的建筑中间,有一个厚实的、生锈的金属盖嵌在水泥地上,由一圈同样锈迹斑斑、粗大的金属螺栓所固定。

According to some, this is the entrance to hell.


This is the Kola Superdeep Borehole, the deepest manmade hole on Earth and deepest artificial point on Earth. The 40,230ft-deep (12.2km) construction is so deep that locals swear you can hear the screams of souls tortured in hell. It took the Soviets almost 20 years to drill this far, but the drill bit was still only about one-third of the way through the crust to the Earth’s mantle when the project came grinding to a halt in the chaos of post-Soviet Russia.

这是科拉超深钻孔(Kola Superdeep Borehole),地球上最深的人造井和最深的人工标志点。当地人发誓说,这座深达地底40230英尺(12.2公里)的钻井,可以听到井底深处传来地狱的鬼魂惨叫声。苏联人花了将近20年的时间才钻到这个深度,但在苏联解体后的混乱中,这个项目戛然而止,当时的深度离穿过地壳到达地幔只钻了三分之一左右。

The Soviets’ superdeep borehole isn’t alone. During the Cold War, there was a race by the superpowers to drill as deep as possible into the Earth’s crust – and even to reach the mantle of the planet itself.


Now the Japanese want to have a go.


“It was in the time of the Iron Curtain when the drilling was started,” says Uli Harms of the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program, who as a young scientist worked on the German rival to the Kola borehole. “And there was certainly competition between us. One of the main motivations was that the Russians were simply not really open with their data.

“地底超深钻探始于铁幕时代,”国际大陆科学钻探项目(International Continental Scientific Drilling Program,德文简称KTB)的哈默斯(Uli Harms)表示。年轻的时候,他曾为科拉超深钻孔的德国竞争对手工作。“我们之间肯定是有竞争的。我们要竞争,其中一个主要动机是,俄国人对他们的数据遮遮掩掩。”

“When the Russians started to drill they claimed they had found free water – and that was simply not believed by most scientists. There used to be common understanding among Western scientists that the crust was so dense 5km down that water could not permeate through it.”


“The ultimate goal of the [new] project is to get actual living samples of the mantle as it exists right now,” says Sean Toczko, programme manager for the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science. “In places like Oman you can find mantle close to the surface, but that’s mantle as it was millions of years ago.

日本海洋研究开发机构(Agency for Marine-Earth Science)的项目经理托齐科(Sean Toczko)说:“(新)项目的最终目标是获得目前存在的地幔实际活体样本。在像阿曼这样的地方,你可以找到接近地表的地幔,但那是数百万年前形成的地幔。”

“It’s the difference between having a live dinosaur and a fossilised dinosaur bone.”


If the Earth is like an onion, then the crust is like the thin skin of the planet. It is only 25 (40km) miles thick. Beyond this, is the 1,800-mile deep mantle and beyond that, right at the center of the Earth, is the core.


Like the space race, the race to the explore this unknown “deep frontier” was a demonstration of engineering prowess, cutting-edge technology and the “right stuff”. The scientists were going where no human had gone before. The rock samples these super-deep boreholes could supply were potentially as important for science as anything Nasa brought back from the moon. The only difference was that this time the Americans didn’t win the race. In fact, no-one really did.


The US had fired up the first drill in the race to explore the deep frontier. In the late 1950s, the wonderfully named American Miscellaneous Society came up with the first serious plan to drill down to the mantle. The society-turned-drinking-club was an informal group made up of the leading lights of the US scientific community. Their crack at drilling through the Earth’s crust to the mantle was called Project Mohole, named after the Mohorovičić discontinuity, which separates the crust from the mantle.

在探索深度边界的竞赛中,美国先发制人。20世纪50年代末,美国科学杂项协会(American Miscellaneous Society,这名字妙吧)提出了第一个深钻进入地幔的认真计划。这个由严肃聚会演变为饮酒作乐派对的非正式学术组织,成员都是美国科学界的领军人物。他们这个钻穿地壳达到地幔的项目叫莫霍计划(Project Mohole)。计划名字来自将地壳与地幔隔开的莫霍界面(Mohorovičić discontinuity)。

Rather than drill a very, very deep hole, the US expedition – observed by novelist John Steinbeck – decided to take a short cut through the Pacific Ocean floor off Guadalupe, Mexico.

美国的勘探计划不想在地球钻一个很深很深的洞,据美国小说家斯坦贝克(John Steinbeck)说,他们决定抄近路,从墨西哥瓜达卢佩(Guadalupe)附近的太平洋海底开始钻洞。

The advantage of drilling through the ocean floor is that the Earth’s crust is thinner there; the disadvantage is that the thinnest areas of crust is usually where the ocean is at its deepest.


The Soviets started to drill in the Arctic Circle in 1970. And finally, in 1990, the German Continental Deep Drilling Program (KTB) began in Bavaria – and eventually drilled down to 5.6 miles (9km).

苏联于1970年开始在北极圈钻探。最后一个超深钻井工程是德国在1990年开始的大陆深层钻探计划(German Continental Deep Drilling Program, KTB),于巴伐利亚州启动,最终达到的深度为5.6英里(9公里)。

As with the mission to the Moon, the problem was that the technologies needed for the success of these expeditions had to be invented from scratch.


When in 1961 Project Mohole began to drill into the seabed, deep-sea drilling for oil and gas was still far off. No one had yet invented now essential technologies such as dynamic positioning, which allows a drill ship to stay in its position over the well. Instead, the engineers had to improvise. They installed a system of propellers along the sides of their drill ship to keep it steady over the hole.


One of the biggest challenges the German engineers faced was the need to drill a hole that is as vertical as possible. The solution they came up with is now a standard technology in the oil and gas fields of the world.


“What was clear for the experience of the Russians was that you have to drill as vertical as possible because otherwise you increase torque on the drills and kinks in the hole,” says Uli Harms. “The solution was to develop vertical drilling systems. These are now an industry standard, but they were originally developed for KTB – and they worked until 7.5kms (4.7 miles). Then for the last 1.5–2km (.9 to 1.25 miles) the hole was off the vertical line for almost 200m.


“We tried to utilise some of the Russian techniques in the early 90s or late 80s when Russia became more open and willing to cooperate with the West,” he adds. “Unfortunately, it was not possible to get the equipment in time.”


However, all of these expeditions ended in a degree of frustration. There were false start and blockages. Then there were the high temperatures their machinery encountered that deep underground, the cost and the politics – all of which put paid to the dreams of the scientists to drill deeper, and break the record for the deepest hole.


Two years before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, US Congress cancelled the funding for Project Mohole when costs began to spiral out of control. The few metres of basalt that they were able to bring up worked out at a cost of roughly $40m (£31m) in today’s money.

在阿姆斯特朗(Neil Armstrong)登上月球的两年前,当莫霍计划的成本开始失控时,美国国会取消了对这项计划的资助。以今天的货币计算,莫霍开采出的数米长的玄武岩,大约花费了4000万美元(3100万英镑)。

Then it was the turn of the Kola Superdeep Borehole. Drilling was stopped in 1992, when the temperature reached 180C (356F). This was twice what was expected at that depth and drilling deeper was no longer possible. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union there was no money to fund such projects – and three years later the whole facility was closed down. Now the desolate site is a destination for adventurous tourists.


The German borehole has been spared the fate of the others. The huge drill rig is still there – and a tourist attraction today – but today the crane just lowers instruments for measurement. The site has become in effect an observatory of the planet – or even an art gallery.


When Dutch artist Lotte Geevan lowered her microphone protected by a thermal shield down the German borehole, it picked up a deep rumbling sound that scientists couldn’t explain, a rumbling that made her “feel very small; it was the first time in my life this big ball we live on came to life, and it sounds haunting,” she says. “Some people thought it did sound like hell. Others thought they could hear the planet breathe.”

荷兰艺术家吉文(Lotte Geevan)把由隔热罩保护的麦克风放进德国钻孔的深处,麦克风接收到了科学家无法解释的低沉的隆隆声,这种声音让她“觉得自己非常渺小”。 她说:“这是我生命中第一次感到这个我们赖以生存的巨大球体有了生命。其声音听起来让人难以忘怀。有些人认为这像是地狱之声,但有些人认为他们听到的是地球的呼吸。”

“The plan was there to drill deeper than the Soviets,” says Harms, “but we hadn’t even reached our allowed phase of 10km (6.25 miles) in the time we had. Then where we were drilling was just much hotter than where the Russians were. It was pretty clear that it was going to be much more difficult for us to go any deeper.


“By then it was also the early 90s in Germany and there was no good argument to raise additional funding to go any deeper because the German unification was costing such a lot of money.”


It is hard not to shake off the feeling that the race to the Earth’s mantle is an updated version of the famous novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth. While the scientists don’t expect to find a hidden cavern full of dinosaurs, they do describe their projects as “expeditions”.

人们难免会想到,抵达地球地幔的竞争就像是法国科幻作家凡尔纳名作《地心游记》(Journey to the Centre of the Earth)的新版本。虽然科学家们并不期望找到一个里面全是恐龙的隐藏洞穴,但他们确实将自己的计划描述为“探险”。

“We thought of it as an expedition because it really took some time in terms of preparation and execution,” says Harms, “and because you’re really going into no-man’s land, where no-one has been before, and that is really unusual today.


“You always find down there something that really surprises you, and especially if you go down into an area that is very deep in the crust.


“And if we talk about KTB or the Kola Superdeep, then the theories that were behind the goals of the project were 30–40 years old by the time drilling started.”


“The thing about these missions is that they are like planetary exploration,” says Damon Teagle, professor of geochemistry in the School of Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton at the University of Southampton, who has been heavily involved in the new Japanese-led project. “They are pure science undertakings and you never know quite know what you are going to find.

英国南安普顿大学(University of Southampton)南安普顿国家海洋学中心海洋与地球科学学院地球化学教授蒂格尔(Damon Teagle)说:“这些任务的意义就像人类探索行星一样,是纯粹的科学事业,你永远不知道自己会发现什么。”

“At Hole 1256 [a hole drilled by the Deep Sea Drilling Project (DSDP) and Ocean Drilling Program (ODP)], we were the first get to see intact ocean crust. No one had got to it before. It was really exciting. There are always surprises.”

“在1256号洞[由深海钻探项目(Deep Sea Drilling Project ,简称DSDP)和海洋钻探项目(Ocean Drilling Program, ODP)钻探的一个洞],我们第一次看到了完整的海洋地壳。以前没人能做到这一点。真的很令人兴奋。总会有惊喜。”

Today, “M2M-MoHole to Mantle” is one of the most important projects of the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP). As with the original Project Mohole, the scientists are planning to drill through the seabed where the crust is only about 6km (3.75 miles) deep. The goal of the $1bn (£775m) ultradeep drilling project is to recover the in-situ mantle rocks for the first time in the human history.

今天,日本的“从莫霍界面到地幔计划”(M2M-MoHole to Mantle)是国际海洋发现计划(International Ocean Discovery)最重要的项目之一。与当初的莫霍计划一样,科学家们计划在地壳只有6公里(3.75英里)深的海床上进行钻探。耗资10亿美元(7.75亿英镑)的超深钻孔计划的目标,是在人类历史上首次找到原位地幔岩石。

“To do this would be an amazing undertaking and require a huge commitment from Japan,” says Teagle, who is involved in the project.


Despite the importance of the project, the huge drilling ship the Chikyū was built almost 20 years ago with this project in mind. The Chikyū uses a GPS system and six adjustable computer-controlled jets that can alter the position of the huge ship by as little as 50cm (20in).


“The idea is that this ship would pick up the torch and continue the work started by the original Mohole project 50 years ago,” says Sean Toczko, programme manager for the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science. “Superdeep boreholes have made a lot of progress in telling us about the thick continental crust. What we are trying to do is find out more about the Crust-Mantle boundary.


“The main sticking point is that there are three main candidate sites. One of those is off Costa Rica, one off Baha, and one off Hawaii.”


Each of the sites involves a compromise between the depth of the ocean, distance from the drilling site and the need for a base on the shore that can support a billion-dollar, 24-hours-a-day operation at sea. “The infrastructure can be built up, but that takes time and money,” adds Toczko.


“In the end, it really is a cost issue,” says Harms. “These expeditions are extremely expensive – and therefore they are difficult to repeat. They can cost hundreds of millions of euros – and only a small percentage will actually be for the earth sciences, the rest will be for technological development, and of course, operations.


 “We need inspiring politicians to talk up the value of these expeditions.”




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