Poking sleeping lions

I can only assume that the mass of exam papers in the department has caused a time-dilation.  It’s the only possible reason I can come up with for the fact it’s June next week.

After the rush of #gradingjail starting so quickly after my return from EGU, a flurry of job applications, and a mad catch-up attempt on my actual research project, I’ve somehow found myself staring down the barrel of my last 3 months of employment at RHUL.

Geologically it’s been an interesting month.  In fact just in the last week or so we’ve had the farcical fartisaurs, the attempted sale of an (allegedly) stolen tyrannosaur, and a devastating earthquake in Italy.  And lets not forget the woman with the burning rocks in her pocket.

However, there’s another story which has my interest.  At the end of last week the Campi Flegrei Deep Drilling Project was given the go ahead.  This is a project which has been on the cards for a while, and at various times hit either financial or political stumbling blocks.  The premise is simple; drill a hole down into the Campi Flegrei caldera.

Campi Flegrei is a pretty impressive volcanic complex; it has, in the past, been responsible for some very large VEI 7 eruptions, and has been gradually inflating pretty much since we started monitoring it.  This, combined with the fact it is a short walk from Naples city centre (Population 3 million) makes it an object of obvious interest for observation.

Campi Flegrei. Lots of nested calderas, Naples just creeping in to shot at the top centre, Vesuvius just out of shot to the top-right. Image taken from Google Earth.

I’ve been fortunate to spend some time around Campi Flegrei (and in fact camp within it), and it’s an impressive feature – mostly because you can hardly get any feel for its scale or structure from standing on to of it.  As a caldera volcano there’s very modest relief, and once you’re inside one crater, you can’t see any of the others.  Aerial and satellite views are the only way to get a decent feeling for the place.

The deep drilling project was originally scheduled to begin in 2008, but there was a degree of concern voiced by a number of geologists, and the local populace more widely.  With plans to put a 500 m test hole in, followed by a main drilling campaign down to 4km, there were concerns raised about high-pressure fluids, and – it being a volcano – a degree of panic about triggering an eruption.

In fact, the drilling project has no plans to penetrate the magma chamber, and while high pressure fluids may be present, there are high pressure fluids present in all deep-drilling projects.  Many countries have drilled near magma bodies in order to tap geothermal energy, so we’re not working completely in the dark.  Drilling into the magma body itself would be rendered largely untenable in any case, as the high temperatures as you approach the body wreaks havoc with drill heads.

There’s potentially a lot of information to be gathered from this enterprise – not just in better understanding the structure of the material lying above the magma chamber, but also in instrumenting the volcano to better measure the deformation and inflation of the magma chamber. The inflation (and deflation) of Campi Flegrei over the last few decades has been both intermittent and extensive.  There are Roman ruins at Pozzuoli which were built at or above sea level, which now have marks of marine shellfish burrows up to 7 m high on the columns. Those columns are now several meters above sea level.  Furthermore, in the four years between 1968 and 1972 Pozzuoli rose more than 1.2 m.  Something is going on in the magma system below, and properly instrumenting it is a useful step in better understanding it.

Of course, all this extra monitoring may be a completely pointless endeavor.  By far the biggest hazard Naples has to contend with – and one it might actually be able to do something about – is the utterly dreadful prognosis for evacuation.  As pointed out by the volcanocafe blog last month, the political infighting, public attitude toward volcanic risk, and the infrastructure make any hope of a successful mass evacuation into a pipedream.  Last year in Nature Warner Marzocchi, a geologist at the National Institute for Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV) in Rome stated that a complete evacuation of Naples’ 3 million residents “would be impossible to manage”.

Which may explain why they’re a little edgy about poking the lion sleeping next to them.

About Pete Rowley

Earth Scientist with a background in volcanology and sedimentology. Enjoys a good rant, beer, and games. Dislikes reality TV, crowds, and unreasonable people.
This entry was posted in Earthquakes, Geology, Geophysics, Hazard Assessment, Science, Travel, Volcanism and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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