Decades have been spent drilling a hole down into the center of the earth, in a remote part of north-west Russia.
At over 40,000 feet deep, this gaping abyss is the deepest borehole in the world. But while it was being drilled, something completely unexpected happened. Researchers hurriedly scrambled to seal the hole back up… abandoning the once-ambitious project forever.
Since the first manmade satellite was sent into space in 1957, mankind has been mystified and entranced by exploring the heavens further.
And, learning about the stars and the cosmos is easier than ever as new technology emerges. Now, thanks to global space agencies and private companies, we know more about the universe than ever before. However, there is another unexplored world that we know surprisingly little about…
Scientists now know that we know more about the vast vacuum of space than we do about what lies beneath us — under our own feet.
Most people know about the space race that was waged between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R, and while the Cold War on the Earth’s surface is well-remembered, surprisingly few people know exactly what lies in the world underneath us.
American and Soviet scientists started to organize elaborate experiments to penetrate the Earth’s crust as early as the late 1950s.
According to what was previously known, the Earth’s crust is about 30 miles thick. It is assumed that, beneath this relatively thin shell, lies the mantle — the unknown and mysterious inner layer that accounts for as much as 40 percent of the planet’s mass.
In 1958, the U.S. broke new ground with the launch of Project Mohole, which was Located near Guadalupe in Mexico. The project was to drill into the Pacific Ocean bed.
The team began the new ambitious project to finally discover more about the world underneath us, only for it to be abandoned eight years later.
Although the teams of engineers had worked on the unprecedented project for eight years, the operation’s funding was ultimately cut.
The engineers had reached only 600 feet in that time, but even at this depth the American scientists still hadn’t reached the Earth’s mantle. But another team was quick to continue the work from where they left off.
On May 24, 1970, the Soviets enlisted a team of researchers and started their own project in the Pechengsky District. This area is located on Russia’s Kola Peninsula.
What made this area ideal was the fact that it is almost uninhabited. Here the Soviets planned on drilling as deep as possible into the planet’s crust. But would they succeed?
According to the Soviet’s claims, they aimed to reach more than 49,000 feet below the surface of the planet.
They also used specialized equipment to dig several other boreholes which forked off the primary shaft. They slowly began to make their way down, but as they dug deeper, the Americans had made their own progress.
The Lone Star Producing Company was doing oil drilling in Washita County in western Oklahoma in 1974.
During their operation, the oil company would drill a hole more than 31, 400 feet deep which would become a man-made marvel known as the “Bertha Rogers hole”. This meant that they had drill more than six miles into the surface of the planet.
While the oil company didn’t find what it was searching for, the Bertha Rogers hole was the deepest hole for another five years.
On June 6, 1979, however, a Kola borehole known as SG-3, broke the standing record. While the hole was only nine inches wide, in 1983 the hole reached a groundbreaking 39,000 feet into the crust.
Upon reaching this remarkable milestone, the project on the Kola peninsula was stopped for a full 12 months. During this time, researchers on the Kola Peninsula paused their work and tourists could visit the site and see this marvel with their own eyes.
When the drilling started up again the following year, however, a technical problem caused the project to be stopped.
The researchers, however, refused to give up. They abandoned the hole and started a new hole from a depth of 23,000 feet.
By 1989 the hole had reached a staggering 40,230 feet, 7.5 miles. The team was excited and confident that by 1990 the hole would be more than 44,000 feet.
The team also predicted that by 1993 the hole would reach its 49,000-foot target. However, the further down the drill went, the more unexpected things became.
The drill slowly inched closer to Earth’s center, but, bizarrely, an unexpected change began to thwart the team. Something totally unexpected lurked beneath the Russian tundra, and it was about to make their mission a lot more difficult than they had initially anticipated…
During the drilling process, the temperatures encountered during the first 10,000 feet was as expected by the scientists.
However, as they went deeper, the temperature steadily increased. When the drilling began to near its target, the temperature reached 180 °C (356 °F). This was 80 °C (176 °F) more than expected. But that wasn’t all.
The rock at these depths also puzzled the scientists as they appeared to become less dense. This also meant that the rocks reacted differently under these conditions.
The team realized that their equipment wasn’t up to dealing with these unpredictable changes. So, the project was hastily abandoned in 1992, 22 years after it had started.
Researchers learned some fascinating things before the Kola Superdeep Borehole was sealed up. One example of this is tiny fossils of marine plants that were found four miles below the surface.
As surprising as it that they were intact, the depth at which they were found was dated to being more than two billion years old. But, another exciting discovery was about to reveal itself…
At the farthest reaches of the Kola Superdeep Borehole, researchers and scientists had measured seismic waves and predicted that the rock underneath Earth’s surface gradually changes from granite to basalt at around two to four miles beneath our feet.
However, experts were blindsided when they learned that this wasn’t the case at all — or at least not on the Kola Peninsula.
Imagine the researcher’s surprise when they only found granite — even in the deepest depths of the massive borehole. After careful study, they tried to explain that the change that they had detected in the seismic waves was actually due to metamorphic differences in the rock.
But they were so very wrong. And, to add more confusion, they also discovered flowing water miles beneath the earth — something that nobody had predicted.
While some groups immediately tried to explain the newly-discovered subterranean water as proof of the floods in the Bible, scientists have their own theory.
Researchers believe that this strange phenomenon is due to massive pressure forcing oxygen and hydrogen atoms out of the rock. After the atoms had been squeezed out, impermeable rocks trapped the water beneath the surface.
Coincidently, the closure of the Kola Superdeep Borehole coincides with the fall of the Soviet Union. By 1995, the ambitious project was shut down permanently.
Although tourists can still see the remnants of the experiment in the nearby town of Zapolyarny, the site has been declared an environmental hazard. Impressively, the borehole remains the deepest man-made hole. Other researchers have yet to beat its record. But, the race to the center of the Earth isn’t over yet…
Drilling platforms from the International Ocean Discovery Program continue to dig deeper into the sea floor. Researchers are still battling against seemingly insurmountable obstacles, such as failing equipment and extreme temperatures.
However, it is clear that there are many, many secrets just waiting to be uncovered. Who knows what will we find at the center of the Earth.