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Inside the Deepest Artificial Hole on Earth

Since the 1970s, scientists at the Kola Borehole have been listening to the inner workings of the Earth... from 10 kilometers below its surface

EVEN IN A HORIZONTAL, flat landscape, cosmology runs vertical. From up—heaven, to down—hell. In between, the interface—that thin crust upon which life is rooted. A tender, fragile layer that humans can turn into infernal landscapes. Vilgiskoddeoayvinyarvi, or the Wolf Lake on the Mountains, was once home to the indigenous Sami people and their livestock. Now its lakes, rivers and swamps leak poison. Copper and nickel mines and smelters have overturned the sparse soils. Only the wind and some birds still sweep over the hills; most other life have faded from the subarctic Kola peninsula, where a border separates Russia from Norway. Somewhere in these barren lands, a ruined industrial tower rises. Its debris strewn across the ground. At the foot of the tower, a metal lid of sorts, an arm’s length in diameter, welded and sealed with metal screws, thick, heavy, rusted. Underneath: The entrance to the deepest artificial hole on Earth.

“The world is deep: and deeper than day has ever comprehended,” writes Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Drillings on the Kola Borehole started on May 24th, 1970 as part of the former Soviet Union’s program “Investigation of the Continental Crust by Means of Deep Drilling.” The very year Lenin would have celebrated his 100th birthday; the committee was eager to support projects that boosted the USSR’s image in the Cold War, this time exploring the darkness below instead of the infinite night above. Further data for the recent science of plate tectonics. More precise locations for metals and minerals. A clue about Hollow Earth, maybe, even? The intent was to get one-third through the Baltic Shield Continental Crust on Kola, roughly 35 km thick. Another 6,000 km remained before the core of the planet. Still, it would be deeper than anyone had ever dared, even the Americans. In 1984, Soviet scientists announced that they had reached 12,262 meters, and celebrated by inviting experts from around the world. The three-day excursion to the Kola Borehole included a coach tour of Murmansk, a concert at Oktyabr community center, and a farewell party. As a present to the guests: Coffee cups with the image of the iconic drilling tower. 

The act of drilling is an exploration of time as told in layers. At the depth of one kilometer scientists found magnetite, copper, nickel, and water. At three kilometers, they discovered rock that was similar to the samples from rocks carried back from the moon (alas, by the Americans). At ten kilometers, they hit rocks that were 2.5 billion years old, saturated with microscopic plankton fossils. Temperatures rose to 180 degrees Celsius and quickly climbed. Stones turned ductile and viscous. Drills lost footing in a molasses-like substance. When technology allowed them to go no further, the scientists started to listen.

The longer they listened, the more they discovered a soundscape of echoes and crunches, of vibrations and ultrasonic sounds. What were the rhythms, and what did they speak of? 

In the 1990s, a recording from the borehole made its rounds in the form of screams and yells. Christian papers in the US readily accepted them to be the voices of tormented humans. What did the Russians really discover in that unfathomably deep hole? Had they opened up a way to Hell? It turned out to be a hoax. The infernal soundtrack was nothing but a soundscape sampled from Baron Blood, a 1970s Italian horror movie, mixed with the rumblings of the New York subway. But it fired the minds of many believers in an era before fake news. The real recordings from the hole exist, and were made with sensors that tracked seismic vibrations. At first there was a roaring. Then it stopped. It started again the next day and then stopped. It took some deep listening before the scientists could link the vibrations with the working hours of a nearby copper mine. The earth was feeding them manmade sounds. They kept their sensors steady, tuned. Other signals became audible. The longer they listened, the more they discovered a soundscape of echoes and crunches, of vibrations and ultrasonic sounds. What were the rhythms, and what did they speak of? 

Many years later, sound artist Justin Bennett visited the decrepit Kola Borehole to record the mood of the site. He interviewed Yuri Smirnov, once chief geologist of the project, who then still lived nearby in a room stuffed with probes from deep within the earth, probes that contacted stones cold to hold against the skin. Smirnov wrote poetry and was familiar with Dante’s Inferno, which he found fascinating but grew bored of its morals and politics. He loved to display the medals he was awarded to during his almost forty working years at the site, of which the last ten were spent doing little, as funding was cut and the project was terminated in 2007. 

For his installation “Wolf Lake on the Mountain,” Bennett created a fictional character called Victor Koslovsky. Modeled after Smirnov, he imagines the man revisiting the site regularly, looking out into the landscape, watching the birds circling around the borehole, musing about this acupuncture point of the earth. Koslovsky waxes about how people have forgotten to listen. How he is slowly learning to predict the future by focusing on the shifting vibrations of the earth. And how the open borehole sounds like a trumpet, when open, with the wind blowing in. 

The Pittsburgh Natural History Museum has a stratavator, an elevator that simulates a ride down to the earth’s core. The sounds accompanying the adventure: some kind of wind trapped in the shaft, the cranking of the industrial elevator. “This is as far as we go,” the excited miner on a video screen explains when the ride stops at 5,000 meters. Since the closing of the Kola Borehole, other places have started to dig deep. In Qatar the record now has been broken for the deepest hole on earth. No one listens into the Al Shaheen site. Here they drill for oil, bringing up fossil fuels for burning. This is as far as we go.

Isaac Yuen is a first-generation Hong Kong-Canadian with a lifelong passion for the environment. He pens short stories and personal essays exploring forms and themes around nature, culture, and identity. He is the co-author of the essay collection, The Sound Atlas: A Guide to Strange Sounds across Landscapes and Imagination, along with nature writer Michaela Vieser, published in German with Knesebeck Verlag. His debut solo nature essay collection, Utter, Earth, is also forthcoming in 2024 with West Virginia University Press. Isaac’s other creative works have been published at Gulf Coast, Newfound, Orion, Pleiades, AGNI, Shenandoah, The Willowherb Review, Tin House online, and elsewhere. He was a 2019 Jan Michalski Foundation writer-in-residence in Switzerland and is a 2023-2024 Fiction Meets Science fellow at the Hanse-Wissenschaftskolleg Institute of Advanced Studies in Delmenhorst, Germany.

Michaela Vieser is the author of nine narrative nonfiction books, which have been translated into several languages, and co-author of The Sound Atlas: A Guide to Strange Sounds across Landscapes and Imagination, along with Isaac Yuen. Her texts and reportages have appeared on Deutschlandfunk, BBC, SWR, Geo, NZZ, Financial Times, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Spiegel Online, Das Magazin, among others. Her documentary series “Love Rituals with Charlotte Roche” on ARTE was shortlisted for the Grimme Prize and the Bavarian Film Award in 2020 and won the Art&Tur film competition. In her work, she tries to counteract the information overload of our digital society by presenting her texts scientifically researched, enriched with her own sensory perceptions. She lives with her three children in Germany.