Will the world ever see another volcanic blowout like that of Mount Tambora in 1815 that killed 92,000 and darkened our planet’s skies for a year? Or of Mount Krakatau that exploded in 1883 taking 32,000 lives and obliterating an island? Or Mount Vesuvius in 79AD that buried the city of Pompeii in ash and molten rock 23 ft (7m) deep?
According to an article in a recent issue of Nature Communications, scientists believe that could be the case. The site being watched for a potential major eruption near a highly populated area is the Campi Flegrei, a 7.5 miles wide caldera lying just west of Naples.
The Campi Flegrei, or Burning Fields, is one of a string of volcanoes lying on the Campanian Arc, together with Mount Vesuvius, Mount Etna, and Stromboli. The Arc was formed by the convergence of two tectonic plates underlying the Italian peninsula. The African Plate, which includes the Mediterranean Sea, is pushing under, or subducting the continental Eurasian Plate. This is a very active seismic zone, accounting for Italy’s many earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The volcanoes form at rupture points along the fault line, allowing molten magma to rise from the earth’s mantle and flow into the chambers underlying the volcanoes.
The last major eruption of Campi Flegrei happened in 1538 when the volcano spewed enough ash and lava to create a cinder cone mountain. But an even bigger blowout occurred in prehistoric times. A 2010 study published in the journal Current Anthropology suggests that an eruption that occurred 39,000 years ago was so gigantic it changed the course of history. In that event, the volcano projected a trillion gallons of ash and molten rock into the atmosphere, and released so much sulfur that it led to a volcanic winter and the demise of the Neanderthals.
Since 2012, scientists have observed changes in Campi Flegrei. There has been a significant uplift in the ground around the volcano, indicating that magma is flowing into the chambers below the volcano, and that the caldera is releasing water-rich gases that could cause the rock above it to fail, leading to a possible eruption. Scientists say other notable volcanoes have shown acceleration in ground deformation in a pattern similar to Campi Flegrei before a major eruption.
A volcanologist at the National Institute of Geophysics in Rome states that it is impossible to predict exactly when or if a volcano will erupt. The activity may continue to build, ending in a major blowout, or it may gradually subside into a pattern of low level activity. No one knows the outcome for sure, but the scientists are continuing to monitor the situation.