Super volcano a global danger - experts

2012-08-03 22:11

(Shutterstock)

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

kalahari.com

Pozzuoli - Across the bay of Naples from Pompeii, where thousands were incinerated by Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, lies a hidden "super volcano" that could kill millions in a catastrophe many times worse, scientists say.

The boiling mud and sulphurous steam holes of the area west of Naples known as the Campi Flegrei or Phlegraean Fields, from the Greek word for burning, are a major tourist attraction.

But the zone of intense seismic activity, which the ancients thought was the entrance to hell, also could pose a danger of global proportions with millions of people literally living on top of a potential future volcanic eruption.

"These areas can give rise to the only eruptions that can have global catastrophic effects comparable to major meteorite impacts," said Giuseppe De Natale, head of a project to drill deep under the earth to monitor the molten "caldera".

One such meteorite impact is thought to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago when debris thrown into the atmosphere from the huge explosion plunged the earth into darkness.

Scientists plan to drill 3.5km below the surface to monitor the huge chamber of molten rock near Pompeii and give early warning of any eruption from a 13km-wide collapsed volcanic caldera.

The Campi Flegrei are similar to the Yellowstone caldera in the US state of Wyoming but of more concern because they are in an area populated by around 3 million people in the Naples hinterland.

Rare

"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," De Natale said.

"But some of these areas, in particular the Campi Flegrei, are densely populated and therefore even small eruptions, which are the most probable, fortunately, can pose risks for the population," said De Natale, from the Vesuvius observatory at Italy's National Institute for Geophysics and Volcanology.

"That is why the Campi Flegrei absolutely must be studied and monitored. I wouldn't say like others, but much more than the others exactly because of the danger given that millions of people live in the volcano."

However, the project, funded by the multi-national International Continental Scientific Drilling Programme, has run into major opposition from some local scientists who say the drilling itself could cause a dangerous eruption or earthquake.

Opposition

Benedetto De Vivo, a geochemist at Naples University, has said the drilling could cause an explosion.

The Naples city council blocked the project in 2010 but it resumed on the site of an abandoned steel mill at Bagnoli, west of Naples, late last month after the recently elected new mayor, Luigi De Magistris, gave the go-ahead.

De Natale scoffed at the objections, saying that the drilling was perfectly safe and that similar probes had been sent down by mining projects looking for sources of thermal energy in the 1980s and earlier.

"There were dozens of drillings in the past, with much less secure instruments for industrial motives and nobody said anything," he said.

He added that those raising objections were not experts on drilling and that their suggestions of potential earthquakes or escapes of magma or liquid molten rock, had been exaggerated by the local press.

Knowledge, safety

"Some of the things they suggested are laughable," he said, adding that the project's priority will be scientific knowledge and safety of the local population rather than industrial exploitation as in the past.

"We believe the security of millions of people deserves the most powerful methods of inquiry without thinking too much about the economic aspect," he said.

He added that drilling is the only way to discover the geological history of the area because successive eruptions buried previous evidence. The probe has already found volcanic rock from a major eruption 15 000 years ago.

De Natale's team has begun drilling a pilot hole at the Bagnoli site, where a long jetty built to load steel is used by joggers and courting couples enjoying the spectacular Neapolitan sunsets.

The pilot hole is aimed not only at studying the stratification of the area but to establish a deep geological observatory with new instruments which De Natale says are many times more sensitive than those in the past.

"This will increase by a thousand or 10 000 times our ability to detect small episodes that are precursors of future eruptions," he said.

Earth's surface

The project also aims to study the cause of a phenomenon known as bradyseism which is a gradual raising and lowering of the earth's service because of deep volcanic activity. This is episodic but in the latest phase the ground has risen by 3.5 m in 15 years, the most since medieval times.

This movement forced the evacuation of 30 000 people temporarily from Pozzuoli in the 1980s and a fishing harbour in the old part of the town was completely abandoned.

Once work is complete on the pilot hole, scientists plan to drill much deeper, to around 3.5 km where temperatures are at around 500°C. But De Natale said this could take another 18 months and the area for the second phase has not yet been decided.

His team has developed new fibre optic sensors able to withstand the extreme heat that would have destroyed earlier electronic equipment.

"We will be able to identify the smallest signs of a future eruption...this is an enormous mitigation of the volcanic risk," he said.

Divided

De Natale says there will be no risk of an escape of magma because the molten chamber is at 7km depth or lower and sensors will give ample warning of temperatures that reach 1 000 degrees C at the molten core.

"We will stop everything if we detect temperatures at 500 degrees...we can close the top of the drilling hole hermetically in a fraction of a second," he said.

Local people are divided on whether the drilling could be dangerous.

"There is a risk that the drilling can lead to a shift of the earth's surface and if that happened, rather than helping to predict future problems, they will be creating them," Pozzuoli student Marco Laporta said.

Many are more sanguine. "Back in the 1980s they said we would all be blown up and we weren't," pensioner Luigi Bruni said.

Read more on:    italy  |  volcanoes  |  research
NEXT ON NEWS24X
SHARE:

Read News24’s Comments Policy

24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
3 comments
Add your comment
Comment 0 characters remaining
 

Inside News24

 
/Fashion
 

6 life hacks you simply have to know

A few simple tricks can make your life so much easier!

 
 

For chic geeks...

Device lets disabled people talk through their nose
It’s THIS easy for someone to steal your ATM pin!
This is why you should install iOS 8
17 photo illusions that look so real

Jobs in Cape Town [change area]

Property [change area]

Travel - Look, Book, Go!

Magical Massinga

Spend 5 nights at the gorgeous Massinga Beach Lodge in Mozambique and only pay for 4 from R13 220 per person sharing. Includes return flights, accommodation, transfers and romantic turndown. Book now!

Kalahari.com - shop online today

Pre-order your iPhone 6 at kalahari.com

Hurry and pre-order your own iPhone 6 now at SA’s favourite online store!

Bargain box – 60% off

Reduced prices, very limited stock. While stocks last. Hurry and shop now!

Mind blow low prices on electronics

Get either the Prestigio multiphone or Proline tablet 7” tablet for only R699. Offers valid while stocks last. Shop now!

30% off Barbie toys

Save 30% on all Barbie toys and accessories. Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

Baby extravanganza month at kalahari.com

Celebrate baby month with a wide range of awesome baby products. Offers valid while stocks last. Shop now.

OLX Free Classifieds [change area]

Samsung Galaxy s4

Mobile, Cell Phones in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 24

Best bargain in big bay

Real Estate, Houses - Apartments for Sale in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25

VW Golf 6, 1.6 Trendline (Excellent condition)

Vehicles, Cars in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25

Horoscopes
Aquarius
Aquarius

It may feel like you are treading water and going nowhere fast. You may want to get off the merry go round. By pushing yourself...read more

There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.
 
English
Afrikaans
isiZulu

Hello 

Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.


Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.

Settings

Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.








Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.