Magma under Hawaii said close to surface

Dec. 13, 2010 at 8:38 PM
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COLUMBUS, Ohio, Dec. 13 (UPI) -- U.S. researchers studying the magma chamber that forms the Hawaiian Island chain say the molten rock lies much closer to the surface than previously thought.

Scientists from Ohio State University say the discovery could help in predicting when Hawaiian volcanoes may erupt, and also suggests Hawaii has huge potential for geothermal energy production, a university release said Monday.

Julie Ditkof, an Ohio State honors undergraduate student in earth sciences, conducted the study and found that magma lies an average of 1.9 miles to 2.5 miles beneath the surface of Hawaii.

"Hawaii was already unique among volcanic systems, because it has such an extensive plumbing system, and the magma that erupts has a unique and variable chemical composition," Ditkof said. "Now we know the chamber is at a shallow depth not seen anywhere else in the world."

While that means the crust beneath Hawaii is much thinner than the crust in any other of the world's volcanic regions, Hawaiians have nothing to fear, Ditkof said.

"The crust in Hawaii has been solidifying from eruptions for more than 300,000 years now," she said. "The crust doesn't get consumed by the magma chamber. It floats on top."

Ditkof and her academic adviser Michael Barton determined there is one large magma chamber just beneath the entire island chain that feeds the Hawaiian volcanoes through many different channels.

The finding might be important in terms of energy, Barton said.

"Hawaii has huge geothermal resources that haven't been tapped fully," he said, adding scientists would have to determine whether tapping that energy was practical or safe.

"You'd have to drill some test bore holes. That's dangerous on an active volcano, because then the lava could flow down and wipe out your drilling rig."

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