Volcano raises concern in Italy

A map shows the location of Marsili and its proximity to Italy and Sicily.

By SANDRA JONTZ | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 7, 2010

NAPLES, Italy — The walls of Europe’s largest undersea volcano appear fragile and an eruption could cause a tsunami that would engulf much of southern Italy, causing certain death and destruction, an Italian volcanologist said.

The latest research from Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology shows the undersea volcano Marsili, about 90 miles southwest of Italy’s third-largest city of Naples, is in fact, active, said Giuseppe D’Anna, the institute’s technological manager.

"We’ve known it’s been there, maybe for about 40 years, but never really were able to study it until recently," D’Anna said in a recent interview from his office in Cefalu, near Palermo, Sicily.

"Finally, we were able to send down equipment — and the recent results show that it is an active volcano."

If the volcano were to spew its accumulating magma, the eruption would send forth a tsunami that would overwhelm Italy’s southern regions of Campania, Calabria and the island of Sicily, D’Anna said.

D’Anna’s predictions to Stars and Stripes, however, weren’t as alarmist as those of institute president Enzo Boschi. Boschi was quoted recently in an Italian daily newspaper, Corriere Della Sera, as saying that collected data indicates "the volcano is active and could suddenly erupt. … It could happen even tomorrow."

"Well, I don’t know about tomorrow," D’Anna said with a slight chuckle, "but our research indicates the walls are weak and there has been a measurable build up of magma in the chambers over the past several years.

"If it were to erupt, it could generate a tsunami that would impact much, if not all, of southern Italy."

However, he added, there is no way of predicting how high of waves an eruption would generate.

Marsili is about 9,800 feet tall, and its crater is about 1,500-feet below the sea’s surface. The mountain measures slightly less than 45 miles long and 18 miles wide.

Unlike the island volcano of Stromboli, near Sicily, Marsili has not erupted in modern history, making it more dangerous, D’Anna said. Constant eruptions provide a release of energy and pressure for both Stromboli and Mount Etna, located on Sicily and Europe’s largest surface active volcano.

Mount Vesuvius, which looms over Naples, technically is dormant, but is one of the most monitored volcanoes on the planet. And unlike Marsili, surfacing lava from Vesuvius would have to break through encrusted rock covering a chamber that is four to six miles below the mouth — an activity that would spur earthquakes, but no spontaneous and surprise eruption, scientists have said.

With U.S. military forces and their families living in the back yard of both Vesuvius and Etna, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes long have been a scenario tested in Navy disaster preparedness drills.

The Navy is aware of the institute’s recent report on Marsili, but has not developed a scenario based on a tsunami, a Navy spokesman in Naples said.

"Natural disasters are something the regional staff, and in turn, the bases are always encouraged to pay attention to," Lt. Brian Badura said. "Like many parts of the world … we live in an area highly susceptible to earthquakes."

Routinely, people are reminded to have emergency kits and plans ready, he said. "If something were to happen, families need to know what to do."

Scientists with Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology lower a sensor into the Tyrrhenian Sea off the western coast of Italy in order to monitor seismic activity of the undersea volcano Marsili, located about 90 miles southwest of Naples.