Smoking volcano

Dear Evil Engineer: Should I build a volcano lair to impress my peers?

Image credit: Dreamstime

It’s hard to create an evil ambience in a suburban semi.

Evil engineer volcano illustration

E&T Magazine

Image credit: E&T Magazine

Dear Evil Engineer,

Last week, it was my turn to host the International Association for Synergistic eVillainy’s monthly board meeting. I had recently been appointed ordinary committee member, and was glad to play host to such esteemed company.

I had never been self-aware about my lair, but the other villains seemed visibly uncomfortable to land their helicopters in the garden of my semi-detached two-bed on the outskirts of Basingstoke (I work from home, so I can look after my beloved but incontinent chow chow, Barry). Next month, we will be assembling in my colleague’s lair, which is in a disused nuclear bunker fitted out with piranha tanks.

I am concerned that I need to upgrade my lair. I am willing to look beyond Basingstoke, and even beyond the UK if necessary. My preference is for an active volcano. Could you suggest what considerations I should keep in mind when scouting out a new lair?


An insecure villain


Dear villain,

Do not allow the judgement of your fellow committee members to make you feel unworthy. One of the most distinguished villains I know operates from a Croydon office block, and some even work from home offices. Besides, Basingstoke is really nothing to be ashamed of; it has an impressively well-stocked Waitrose.

But since you mention your attraction to volcano lairs, let me share my concerns. While there are some benefits to setting up a lair near an active volcano – notably the fertile earth nearby and the opportunity to harness its geothermal energy – life becomes significantly more challenging when the inevitable eruptions arrive.

It is notoriously difficult – some say impossible – to control lava. Lava is not like water; it is hefty molten rock flowing unpredictably at 1,000°C, and few things stand in its way. In a small number of cases, lava trenches and very robust rock or concrete barriers have  proved useful in deflecting or slowing lava flows and, in 1973, lava from the Icelandic volcano Eldfell was diverted by blasting it with frigid seawater for five months.

As well as the lava, you must also consider the hot, toxic ash plumes, which can cause even strong metal roofs to collapse under their weight when they accumulate on them. This is to say nothing of the earthquakes, volcanic lightning, and lahars: extremely fast and violent mud slides known for flattening entire settlements.

You could avoid some of these dangers by drilling yourself a subterranean lair near a volcano, which would be less susceptible to damage from earthquakes and ash plumes, although more susceptible to lava damage and toxic gas emissions. Carefully consider which threats you are in a better position to defend against before you make any decisions.

But before I go any further, I suspect that what you really mean when you talk about a “volcano lair” is a lair inside a volcano, isn’t it? Well, it goes without saying that this would cause extra trouble. Volcanos are highly corrosive, containing acid gases dissolved in magma. According to Dr Michael Poland, the disappointingly benevolent scientist-in-charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, scientific equipment installed in volcanos rusts away quickly, with volcanos effortlessly eating through stainless steel and even rock. So you would need to carefully consider the materials you use to construct your lair: something stable and highly heat-resistant like silicone could prove useful for some components.

I am unsure about whether any existing air filter would be fit to handle the toxic cocktail of sulphur dioxide and other gases found inside volcanos, so would suggest that you ensure your lair is airtight and either can circulate fresh air from the surface, or perhaps functions as a closed ecosystem.

A lair inside a volcano would undoubtedly be annihilated by an eruption, so you will need to consider preventative measures. Delightfully, scientists have considered whether eruptions could theoretically be stoppered. Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory published a paper suggesting engineering solutions for dampening supervolcanos like Yellowstone; the most feasible involving drilling wells deep in the volcano and pumping water at high pressure, which returns as steam to drive turbines. Over time, enough heat could be extracted from the volcano to reduce the overall risk of an eruption – but projects on this scale would take thousands of years while pumping dry much of the US. Even then, a heat extraction system like this could be overwhelmed by unpredictable intrusions of magma from below, so would need to be able to detect and respond to incoming magma bursts.

If you had unlimited time and resources, perhaps it would be possible to ensure the safety of an active volcanic lair, but given that you still do not appear to have the resources to escape Basingstoke, I would assume you are not in this position. Besides, preventing volcanic eruptions sounds suspiciously heroic.

Given these complications, please understand that I have your best interests in mind when I advise looking for a less threatening volcano in which to make your pied à terre.

One possibility is Yucca Mountain in Nevada, which has not erupted for 80,000 years. The US government has already done half the work for you by constructing a nuclear waste storage facility inside the mountain before abandoning the plan, leaving a huge cavern ripe for villainous inhabitation. Opening your options wider to include extinct volcanos could even allow you to build a lair closer to home: the UK boasts a handful of charming dead volcanos, including Ben Nevis and Giant’s Causeway. Simply install mood lighting and leave rotten eggs on the radiators to replicate the sensation of living inside an active volcano.


The Evil Engineer

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