The Superdeep: a Dusted Legend

July 2012

45 years ago in the time of Great Construction Projects of USSR, the Kola Borehole with a depth of 12,262 meters was drilled. Despite the fact that the drilling was stopped in the early 1990s, the borehole is still the deepest one in the world. However, only ruins have remained from the record-breaker.

карта Кольская скважина

Did you ever drop in an abandoned household? How does it feel to roam in rooms together with a draught from broken windows past by things whose owners as if oozed out, having left plentiful belongings to be exposed to northern winds with rain and snow? And what if this is not a common household but a large research station, under which, instead of a basement with home-garden pickles, deep down goes a very long hole that has been the deepest artificial making on Earth created by Soviet people and the whole mankind...

You can never know where you will have to go next to serve your Motherland! And my lot was to go the Kola peninsula above the Polar Circle. My army service in the 200th motorized rifle brigade is a separate story. We will skip to the moment when the time of my demobbing was just around the corner. An occasion turned up to put on civil clothes and to climb the highest in our area hill with a five-meter cross on top. The whole Petsamo district, as it had been called when it had belonged to Finland, could be seen from there in the light of a continuous polar day.

Vast wetlands stretching along the Barents Sea are rich not only with cloudberry, blueberry and bilberry. This is real backwoods where during WWII battles for the north of the Arctic Circle took place, about which stelas, monuments, a well-groomed German cemetery and remnants of defensive fortifications remind. There, St. Tryphon Pechenga Monastery, a sample of wooden architecture and the northernmost orthodox monastery in the world, solemnly stands at the confluence of the rivers of Pechenga and Nama-Yoki. It was founded by St. Tryphon of Pechenga, who converted Skolt Sami to Christianity. The wooden monastery was raided and burnt down by bandits on the Christmas Eve of 1590, claiming lives of 116 monks. Several years ago the monastery was originally reconstructed according to old drawings. There is also a semi-abandoned settlement called Korzunovo not far from Luostari community. When the military go there to get to a firing range they pass Yuri Gagarin Museum. The first spaceman in the world did his military service in Korzunovo Air Force Regiment of Northern Fleet from 1957 to 1960. It was there where Gagarin was enlisted in a cosmonaut team. His first daughter Elena (she is the director of Moscow Kremlin museums today) was born in the maternity hospital of nearby miner's settlement Zapoliarny.

Трифонов-Печенгский монастырь

But the most amazing local sightseeing is the Kola Superdeep Borehole. Of course, if it is possible to recommend it to visitors of the Russian North. In any case, old-term residents, who knew it only in the time of its glory, are reluctant to talk about the place and nobody can explain the way there. Intentionally or not, but a shade of taboo has been attributed to the mysterious history of the borehole.

Map Does Not Lie

Finally, a man turned up who demystified the story of the Superdeep. A map, manually drawn by bulldozer driver Vladimir, was a partial proof of the fact that it was not just a legend of the past Soviet Union. And now, when a military release was stamped in my service record, our commander provided the "expedition" with transport – luckily, our old LADA car was no stranger to cross country driving.

The sky became quickly overcast with clouds mixed with smog from Zapoliarny mines. It drizzled. The highway to Norwegian Kirkenes was far behind us when we ascended a pass. Despite the late June, there was still snow. It seemed all reference points had matched until then, but soon enough a deserted road began to branch thus revealing frightening ambiguities of the map. Rusty No Entry road signs could not have come at a better time - it only remained to be grateful in one's mind to those who had shown where it was prohibited to drive. That was exactly where we planned to go.

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I put away a black-and-white picture. There was no room for doubts: impressive sombre walls belonged to the Kola Superdeep Borehole. However, it was impossible to understand what was inside from distance. An UAZ car was parked nearby. We looked either for owners of the vehicle or for station security guards, or at least for anyone. There were three geologists sheltered in a small cabin – they were the only people who stayed here. However, they had nothing to do with the borehole. Upon saying behind our backs "nothing to see there", the men closed the cabin's door.

Ghost Station

The main 70-meter skip shaft, inside of which the unique drilling rig Uralmash-1500 had been installed, was dismantled. Judging by debris, it was done in a most barbarian way: pipes, bent beams and warped pieces of tin covering were heaped around randomly intact structures. The borehole itself, still the deepest one in the world, was sealed. It was hard to imagine that a metal cap, on which I stepped unintentionally, covered the 12,262 meters that were the result of blood, sweat and tears of Soviet researchers.

We walked around bereft buildings with a chilly sensation in throat – the feeling well known to visitors of Chernobyl NPP and Pripyat (Ukraine). In one of the sheds, filled with what remained from computers and geological equipment, we found a yellowish newspaper among construction hard hats, mint condition electronic components and broken vinyl records. It was 1978 Pravda ("Truth"), organ of the CPSU Central Committee. But most found newspapers were dated 1998-1991.

It seemed as if people had vanished unexpectedly from administration offices, scientific laboratories and workshops of multi-storey buildings. They had planned to return to their work stations the next day but something happened and nobody came... Many windows were broken. Wind walked along the premises, blowing magnetic tapes entangled across passages. A 1989 calendar was hanging on a wall – young and free-spirited actor Leonid Yarmolnik did not mind spots that appeared on the poster. In some places, furniture was upside down. Tables were piled with stacks of documents, geology books in Russian and German and copybooks with notes. Externally untapped equipment was connected to electric outlets – in vain, the station was de-energized and the arrows of instruments were dead for good. Lamps, paper rolls, cotton wool, cups and other stuff were scattered on the floor. Seismic activity charts were sticking out of cabinets. Supports, retorts and test tubes sat on racks. Vials were filled with vague liquids. Cracked rubber and sprinkled white powder were all around. An old radio, a telephone and lavatory equipment, untouched by looters were present. And finally, an unfinished chess game was on a table. Everything was covered with dust. We wondered what an evacuation plan providing for saving not only people but also salvaging of documents and process equipment was needed for...The plan placed under glass was signed by a responsible person on the 1st of August of 1987. So what happened in reality?

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Deep in Polar Mines

The audacious project launched in 1970 on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Lenin's birthday was a huge step ahead for a scientific viewpoint. SG-3 (that was the state number of the Kola Borehole) was meant to study lithosphere in the area where the lower crust closely reaches the Earth's surface. Surprising findings from the depth rebutted many theories. When researchers found 2.8-billion years old microscopic single-cell plankton fossils, it turned out that life on our planet had emerged 1.5 billion years earlier than it had been thought before. The theory of the layered structure of the Earth's crust was challenged: a granite layer occurred three kilometres lower whereas basalts were not found at all. The temperature gradient did not conform to the predictions either: the temperature at a depth of five kilometres exceeded 70°C, at a depth of seven – 120°C, and at a depth of twelve sensors detected 220°C! A large concentration of methane was discovered at deep depths where there were already no sedimentary rocks which completely ruined the theory of biological origin of hydrocarbons, namely oil and gas. In addition to other revelations, a rock sample from a depth of four kilometres appeared to be very similar to... lunar soil.

Over ten research institutes and around three thousand employees were involved in the project. The first drilling phase was completed in the spring of 1975 down to a depth of 7,263 meters. It was not only an all-Union record for equipment previously used purely for oil and gas production. The borehole became the deepest one in Europe. Before the beginning of the second phase, the old drilling rig had been dismantled and newest drilling rig Uralmash-15000 specially tailored for the project was erected. On the 6th of June, 1979, the borehole reached a mark of 9,584 meters and became the deepest hole in the world surpassing American Bertha Rogers one. The borehole reached 12 kilometres during the third drilling phase (April 1981 – December 1984).

All of a sudden, after a triumph at 1984 International Geological Congress, the researchers experienced a series of bad luck. 27 September 1984 became the black date – a 5,000 meters section of the drill string twisted off. They were not able to retrieve the string during the next five months. The most bitter thing about this breakdown was not so much the loss of the pipes and the bit as the loss of all previous years' progress. The drilling began again at 7,000 meters from a branch above the breakdown point. It took six long years to reach 12,000 meters again. However, failures continued to happen. There were drilled 12 branching holes in total. Four of them extended from 2,200 to 5,000 meters.

In 1992, a blast occurred in the hole which stopped the drilling for good at a depth of 12,262 meters. Prior to this last incident, acoustic oscillations had been detected by seismic pick-ups, while outside workers could hear howling sounds coming up from the depth. Though scientists swore that those sounds had been merely "moans" of the earth induced by dislocation of rocks and not the cries of sinners from the Underworld, a legend that could contribute to Dante's creation roamed around the whole world going that the Kola Superdeep Borehole had been a road to the Underworld. The official reason for the abandonment of SG-3 Project was a lack of funding. Backstage explanations would be enough for creation of a second volume of the Divine Comedy.