Two thousand years ago, Mount Vesuvius destroyed Pompeii. But the impacts of that pale in comparison to the disaster that could be cause by a supervolcano lurking on the other side on Naples. Scientists believe Campi Flegrei could wipe out all life in Europe if it erupts. So why are British scientists hoping to poke at it with drilling rods?
Scientists have predicted the devastating impacts of a potential eruption, that would likely start with a deadly swarm of 1,000 small earthquakes and an evacuation of the city of Naples—and end with hundreds of billions of cubic feet of volcanic rock blasting into the atmosphere.
The Campi Flegrei caldera is a supervolcano of immense power. A new eruption would be more likely to result in the creation of another Vesuvius-like cone and a obliteration much of the life in Europe. Eventually, the Earth’s surface would swell and crack and a series of small eruptions would cause the four-mile-wide caldera floor to collapse into the larger magma reservoir, which would push more magma to the surface.
The last time we saw something like this was 39,000 years ago when the caldera first formed. It created cliffs and volcanic deposits over 300 ft deep. If the same eruption happened today, part of Italy would disappear and ash clouds would likely blot out the Sun and lower the Earth’s temperature. The UK would lose its livestock, crops and three-quarters of their plant species.
Scientists are particularly concerned because part of the caldera has risen 10 ft since 1969, causing whole streets of houses to crumble and collapse. The last time the ground swelled this way, there was an eruption that caused the formation of a new volcano.
Now, an international team is attempting to drill down inside the caldera to uncover the cause. Chris Kilburn, from the University College London, is leading the charge. The UCL group is made of world leaders in rock physics and understanding how the Earth’s crust breaks down.
“Right now, we may well be in another period of uplift,” Kilburn commented. “If it occurs as before, we might expect another 60 years’ worth of unrest and possible earthquakes and eruptions, with two or three more episodes and uplift to occur in the next ten years. We have to presume we have a few more decades of unrest, and if this is going to be the case, then we have to get more data about the volcano now.”
Despite the urgency of the situation, the mayor of Naples has dramatically halted Kilburn’s work. Drilling was supposed to begin this month on the eastern part of the caldera, but was stopped following objections of a local scientist who argued that the drilling could potentially trigger the explosion and destroy the city.
Still, scientists insist the benefits of drilling largely outweigh the risks. The plan is to drill to a depth of two-and-a-half miles using a team from the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program (ICDP) and a semi-automatic modular machine that can switch drill heads mid-flow to read temperatures and take core samples and gas readings. They will drill until they sit about two miles above the magma reservoir, where the rock is no longer heated by water, but by magma. Measuring the residual temperature of the rock will give scientists a better idea of the dept and size of the magma reservoir sitting below.
So how does the local public feel about the potential disaster?
“The problem is that Neapolitan people are conscious of Vesuvius, but few of those who live in this area know about the caldera, or that all of this land is volcanic,” scientist De Natale commented. “Vesuvius is small compared to the caldera, and in my opinion the caldera presents a greater risk. Vesuvius is surrounded by a lot of people, but has nowhere near the population density of Naples.”