Jan. 31, 2011

Tips for Visiting Volcanoes

by Milbry Polk

Click to enlarge images

The World

We are sailing on The World in a region known for volcanoes. On board is the eminent vulcanologist Catherine Hickson. I sat down with her to learn a little more about what she does.

Catherine Hickson is a Canadian geologist who works with geothermal energy from volcanoes. She studied at the University of British Columbia, where she began working with the Geological Survey of Canada. One of her tasks was to make regional maps and detailed studies of volcanoes. This was a huge task as there are over 200 young volcanoes in British Columbia, where she was posted, most of which are in remote areas. She created a Web site that describes and catalogs Canadian volcanoes at http://gsc.nrcan.gc.ca/volcanoes/index_e.php

Cathie was present at the eruption of Mt. St. Helens and was the only geologist to survive the eruption. She wrote a riveting book about her escape from the deadly volcanic blast, Surviving the Stone Wind.

Catherine Hickson (right) and Bree Polk-Bauman

Over the next years she ran projects in South America, teaching and training scientists about advanced geological investigation methods. They put instrumentation on volcanoes and in other geologically active areas to monitor potential earthquakes and landslides. Part of her job was also to help communities understand the geological hazards they lived with, then to help them create emergency response protocols to deal with disasters and function during the inevitable natural emergencies.

Of course, to prepare, you need to understand the type of volcano you are dealing with. Will it just sputter lava? Might it blast deadly fumes, hot air and explosions of hot rock? So do you watch the show, or do you run for your life?

Everyone who lives in an earthquake or volcanic zone needs to have an earthquake kit. Cathie said that an earthquake kit should have everything you need to survive for 72 hours without outside help. That is enough food, water, and medications for each member of your family, as well as a communications device like a wind-up radio. Check this website for more information:http://www.fema.gov/areyouready/

If you are going to see a volcano, Cathie advises that you inquire locally about the state of the volcano. Some volcanoes around the world are monitored, so that information should be available. However, many are not, so you must be very wary and go prepared. Wear good hiking boots -- not sneakers -- a long sleeved shirt, pants, and leather gloves. Leather gloves are necessary because if you are walking on lava, and you fall, you need to have gloves on to protect your hands. If you are told to wear a mask then DON’T GO.

Be very cautious and listen. A loud explosion is a clue that you should go immediately!

Currently, there are hundreds of active volcanoes around the world. About 60 are in eruption at any given time. There are also about a dozen devastating earthquakes a year.

Cathie’s work with volcanoes lead her to her current job, which is working for a private sector company, Magma Energy Corporation. They are one of the leading companies that is taking the heat associated with volcanoes and transforming it into electricity.

“Basically what we do is search for reservoirs of hot water, drill into them, and use the hot fluid to generate electricity," Cathie explained. "Right now we are working in Iceland, USA, Chile, Peru, and Italy. It is possible that countries worldwide could take advantage of this energy source, weaning them from dependence on diesel and coal to generate electricity.”

It used to be that for the technology to work well, the water had to be very hot. But now electricity can be generated at lower temperatures -- about 80 degrees centigrade. Technological advances are also making “Engineered Geothermal Systems” (EGS) possible, thus opening the door to making this type of energy available globally.

EGS uses the fact that everywhere you drill is hot -– because you are going down into a hot earth -– but not everywhere has water to make the steam necessary for generating electricity. So, recent technology allows the wells to go much deeper –- potentially as deep as 7 kilometres -- and special techniques are being developed that inject and circulate the water through rocks that are hot but dry. Basically, water is forced down one well, then leaches out at depth through manmade cracks to another well, where it comes up as steam. This heated water is then brought to the surface to generate electricity.

The steps to making geothermal energy are the following:

1. Identify an area with potential, which means it is usually associated with a volcano, deep faulting, or a deep rift zone.

2. Explore the surface. Make a geological map and take samples of rocks, water, and any steam (fumaroles) that might be coming to the surface. The chemistry of the fumaroles and hot springs tells us about the reservoir and how hot it is. Use probes to determine the salinity and acidity of the water. The samples are sent to labs where the chemistry of the water is determined. The water chemistry tells the geologist something about the conditions below ground

Catherine Hickson in the field.

3. Make geophysical (geophysics is a branch of earth science that uses special techniques to determine the properties of rocks) maps using special instrumentation, which tells the composition of the rock underground and where the reservoirs of hot water is. [they are not actually water – we refer to them as “brine” or “fluid” ]

4. Drill a test well (or many) to learn about the water and see how far down it is.

5. Then, if all goes well, start drilling a series of wells up to a kilometre apart.

This is when the cost of building a power plant and how much you can sell the power for is important. Often at least ten megawatts of generated electricity are needed for the site to be viable –- and often many more. A rough global average, suggests that on average wells produce 5 megawatts, so a site could have an average of 10-30 wells. In California, there is a single well producing 50 megawatts!

6. Next, build a turbine –- about the size of a house –- to take the steam and transform it to energy. Then the water is recycled, sent back down the wells to continue the cycle.

7. There are few polluting aspects of this method. Very, very low levels of CO2 or other pollutants are produced in most cases -- substantially lower levels than produced by coal or petroleum-based energy production methods. The water, even if heavily laden with acids or other toxic materials from the earth, is reused by injecting it back into the earth to produce more steam that keeps the cycle going.

8. Power lines are then laid to take the electricity to the power grid.

9. Once a reservoir is tapped and starting to produce, the field is monitored to make sure it is healthy and producing. You don’t want a cool field. Also you don’t want volcanic or earthquake activity to threaten the site.

Milbry Polk is the Founder and Director Emeritus of Wings WorldQuest, the preeminent organization supporting women explorers throughout the world. She is the author/editor of a dozen books including Women of Discovery, The Looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad, and Egyptian Mummies; and she is the book reviews editor for The Explorers Journal.

About Milbry Polk

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