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Wednesday, June 5, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Naples on edge as huge underground volcano rumbles

For the past 70 years, a long-dormant “supervolcano” under the metropolitan area of Naples has been reawakening. The city is on edge after the strongest earthquake in decades jolted its citizens Monday.

(CN) — Naples, Italy's ancient southern metropolis dominated by the volcano Mount Vesuvius, is in the grip of fear amid a swarm of small earthquakes triggered by another volcano, this one largely invisible and mostly underground.

This long-dormant volcano, known as Campi Flegrei, lies immediately west of Naples and, since the 1950s, has shown signs of reawakening with the potential to cause catastrophic damage should it erupt once again.

On Monday, the volcano's stirring stoked fears in Naples after the 600,000 residents living atop it were jolted by a magnitude 4.4 earthquake, the strongest measured since the early 1980s, the last period of such intense earthquake activity.

Campi Flegrei — in English, Phlegraean Fields — is Europe’s largest active caldera, a hollow left after a volcano’s eruption. Italian scientists call it a "supervolcano."

During these periods of high activity, the caldera volcano also causes the surface to bulge in places. In the 1980s, the ground rose by as much as 70 inches, memorably leaving boats in one small harbor on dry ground. This time, scientists are closely watching as the rate of bulging increases.

Monday's earthquake came amid what scientists call a “seismic swarm,” a phenomenon when hundreds of earthquakes, most of them so slight they're not even felt, take place due to volcanic activity.

Monday's earthquake alarmed the residents of Pozzuoli, a city west of Naples built atop the caldera. The area was rattled Wednesday by a 3.6 magnitude earthquake, prompting Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni to hold an emergency meeting with her ministers. 

Scientists do not believe an eruption is imminent, but there is uncertainty about what the volcano may do. Regardless, officials are warning people to be prepared for more earthquakes. 

This week, a female prison in Pozzuoli was emptied due to the increased seismic activity. Schools and factories were closed and dozens of families were evacuated from buildings considered at risk of collapse. Scores of people have opted to sleep outdoors too.   

Meloni’s government, meanwhile, is evaluating evacuation plans for a major earthquake and a possible eruption. About 3 million people live in the metropolitan area of Naples.  

The size of the Campi Flegrei’s magma chambers are huge, though their size and composition remain unclear. The volcano, with a diameter of about 8.5 miles, comprises two dozen craters and it has been active for at least 80,000 years. It last erupted in the 16th century.

The roof of the volcano collapsed after violent eruptions 39,000 and 15,000 years ago. Since then, its magma chambers underground have been filling up again and scientists say it will eventually erupt. The eruption 39,000 years ago caused a volcanic winter in a radius within 60 miles of the volcano and suddenly cooled the planet. 

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow @cainburdeau
Categories / Environment, International, Politics, Science

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