Campi Flegrei: The Massive Italian Volcano that Will Kill Us All (Or Not)

  • Share
  • Read Later
O. Louis Mazzatenta / National Geographic / Getty Images

Increasing amounts of steam rise from an Italian volcano.

In 79 AD the Italian volcano of Vesuvius erupted, smothering the city of Pompeii and killing thousands of Romans. Today, just across the Bay of Naples, a hidden “super volcano” threatens to kill millions in a natural disaster on par with a major meteor strike.

Or, you know, not.

The Campi Flegrei (or Phlegraean Fields) is an eight-mile-wide volcanic caldera on the outskirts of Naples, a city of nearly a million people on Italy’s western coast. A popular tourist attraction, it’s filled with lakes of boiling mud, Yellowstone-like sulphrous steam holes and small volcanic features; the name comes from the Greek word for ‘burning’ and the ancients believed the area to be the gateway to hell.

But the Campi Flegrei is a largely stable area; while geysers and small eruptions pose some danger to those who live in the immediate vicinity, these same incidents function as pressure valves, keeping the chance of a major eruption to a minimum.

Still, with the area now so heavily settled, scientists are increasingly worried about the damage such an explosion — no matter how remote the possibilty — might do.  As Reuters put it, it would be a disaster “of global proportions, with millions of people literally living on top of a potential future volcanic eruption.”

(PHOTOS: Iceland: Living With Volcanoes)

Scientists have recently announced plans to drill 2.2 miles below the surface of the caldera, hoping to install probes that will give them early warning if the area shows signs of erupting. But even this plan is causing some concerns, with opponents saying that any tampering with the Campi Flegrei could risk triggering a major eruption. In 2010 the Naples City Council banned drilling into the formation, but later reversed its decisions following safety reassurances from the scientific community.

The new study, funded by the International Continental Scientific Drilling Programme, plans to embed instruments that will increase researchers’ sensitivity to small seismic movements by 10,000 times. The plan is to gain a better understanding of the area’s geological makeup, what causes its periodic seismic activity and what the chances are of a major disaster. Caldera like Campi Flegrei “”can give rise to the only eruptions that can have global catastrophic effects comparable to major meteorite impacts,” Giuseppe De Natale, a researcher at Italy’s National Institute for Geophysics and Volcanology, told Reuters.”Fortunately, it is extremely rare for these areas to erupt at their full capacity, as it is extremely rare for large meteorites to hit the earth.”

PHOTOS: Underwater Volcano Erupts Near Spain’s Canary Islands