Deep in a South African gold mine, scientists drill for the heart of an earthquake

It’s no easy feat to drill into the faults that cause earthquakes. Intercepting such active ruptures, which are buried kilometers beneath the surface, requires specialized equipment, skilled crews, and a lot of money and time. There are no shortcuts. Well, maybe there’s one: an express elevator in a South African gold mine that runs 3 kilometers straight into Earth.

This week, scientists were set to begin drilling a 750-meter-deep hole from the bottom of the Moab Khotsong mine, located some 180 kilometers southwest of Johannesburg, South Africa. Three years ago, a magnitude-5.5 earthquake erupted from a previously unknown fault beneath the mine. Aftershocks continue. The $1.6 million project, if successful, could reveal the internal workings of what may be a “fresh” fault: one that has experienced its first earthquake. Unsullied by previous quakes, the fault could yield new insights into how quakes unfold—and how humans can inadvertently trigger them.