Researchers at University College London have found evidence that the Campi Flegrei volcano in southern Italy may erupt sooner than previously thought, a new study in Nature Communications reports.
The large volcano has been restless for the past 67 years. In that time, it has had three different two-year periods in which magma movement sparked unrest that caused small, local earthquakes and ground uplift.
In the study, the team used a new model of volcano fracturing to study the depression. This revealed the unrest occurring since the 1950’s has created a build-up of energy in the crust and made the volcano susceptible to eruption. Such information directly contradicts past beliefs that the energy needed to stretch the crust dissipated after each unrest period.
“We don’t know when or if this long-term unrest will lead to an eruption, but Campi Flegrei is following a trend we’ve seen when testing our model on other volcanoes, including Rabaul in Papua New Guinea, El Hierro in the Canary Islands, and Soufriere Hills on Montserrat in the Caribbean,” said lead author Christopher Kilburn, Director of the University College London Hazard Center, in a statement. “We are getting closer to forecasting eruptions at volcanoes that have been quiet for generations by using detailed physical models to understand how the preceding unrest develops.”
Eruptions become much more likely when the ground has been stretched to its breaking point. That is because the pull allows molten rock to escape to the surface when the ground splits. However, it is difficult to predict when an eruption will occur because, even if the ground breaks, the magma can stall instead of moving straight to the surface, Phys.org reports.
In the case of Campi Flegrei, three episodes of uplift have pushed the port of Pozzuoli — which sits near the center of unrest — more than nine feet out of the sea. This is cause for concern because the crater covers nearly 40 square miles of land outside of the western Naples suburbs. If it erupted, nearly 360,000 people in the area would be affected. While most of that damage would come from seismic activity, the debris would cause problems as well.
“By studying how the ground is cracking and moving at Campi Flegrei, we think it may be approaching a critical stage where further unrest will increase the possibility of an eruption, and it’s imperative that the authorities are prepared for this,” said Kilburn.