A sleeping Italian supervolcano rumbles closer to eruption


Recent stirrings of the Campi Flegrei volcano near Naples may indicate the lead-up to catastrophe, writes Jessica Snir.


A crate full of sulphurous rocks surrounded by steam and smoke from the Solfatara volcano, part of the Campi Flegrei.
Andrea Pistolesi

The Campi Flegrei volcano situated to the west of Naples in southern Italy has been stirring for the past 67 years. Similar stirrings were recorded for a century before its last great week-long eruption, in 1538.

Now, new research from University College London (UDL) and the Vesuvius Observatory in Naples suggests that another eruption of the supervolcano may be more imminent than previously anticipated.

The research, published in Nature Communications, finds that the periods of unrest occurring intermittently since the 1950s – namely small-scale, local earthquakes and ground uplifts – have led to the accumulation of energy within the volcanic crust and an increased susceptibility to eruption.

The discovery of this cumulative effect is contrary to an earlier belief that the energy built up during each period of unrest dissipated afterwards.

To investigate the activity of Campi Flegrei and attempt to forecast future eruptions, the researchers utilised a new model of volcano fracturing developed at UCL involving detailed physical models of how the ground is cracking and moving at the site.

“We don’t know when or if this long-term unrest will lead to an eruption, but Campi Fleigrei is following a trend we’ve seen when testing our model on other volcanoes,” explains Dr Christopher Kilburn of UCL. “It may be approaching a critical stage where further unrest will increase the possibility of an eruption.”

Rather than a conical mountain-like volcano, Campi Flegrei manifests as a large caldera, an enormous depression in the surface, covering a colossal 100 square kilometres.

Episodes of unrest since 1950 have together raised the port of Pozzuoli more than three metres out of the sea and forced the evacuation of the town.

An eruption of Campi Fleigrei now would devastatingly affect not only the 360,000 residents of the caldera region but also the nearly one million people in neighbouring Naples.

“We must be ready for a greater amount of local seismicity,” explained Professor Giuseppe De Natale, former Director of the Vesuvius Observatory. “We must adapt our preparations for another emergency.”

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Jessica Snir is a clinical trial coordinator at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia and Cosmos intern.