'Yellow' alert for bradyseism eruption in Campi Flegrei

Fumaroles emerge from the Solfatara crater in Pozzuoli

NAPLES - Active ground movement and seismic activity in the Campi Flegrei area of Pozzuoli north of this southern city have led authorities to place the zone at a higher level of alert to protect citizens against a possible volcanic eruption, scientists say.

 Professor Piergiulio Cappelletti, Chair of the Earth Sciences, Environment and Resources Department at Federico II University of Naples says that “Currently, Campi Flegrei is in a yellow phase,” explaining that there are four phases: green, yellow, orange and red.

 “The area is very closely monitored and authorities are prepared to evacuate were the phase to change to emergency level,” he emphasizes.

 “With highly seismic areas like Campi Flegrei and the Vesuvio volcano that are very active, the mere eight Science Departments remaining in Italy, after drastic cuts, are really too few to cover such a vast high risk territory,” the Professor tells the Italian Insider in a critical description of Italian geologists today.

 Periods of bradyseism or the gradual uplift (positive bradyseism) or descent (negative bradyseism) of part of the Earth’s surface are not new to the area. Years ago, geologists noticed that holes made by molluscs on the Tempio di Serapide registered up to 6 or 7 M above water. The drastic elevation of the holes proved huge variations in sea and ground levels.

 In an extended period stretching from 1982-1983, high earth movement values signalling serious volcanic eruption danger were registered.

 More remotely, in 1538, Monte Nuovo erupted, destroying the nearby town of Tripergole. Luckily, a speedy evacuation of the area led to just a few deaths for those who stubbornly insisted on staying in homes.

 Once on site along the stretch of land leading to Nisida, it is still hard to fathom summer bathers are soaking in the sun on seismic ground. In a volcanic district, registering thousands of movements none of which are ever in the same location, there are not any obvious volcanic-shaped geological formations to give people a sense of worry or alarm.

 “There is huge underestimation here of the perception one gets from classic volcanoes, like the Vesuvius. This is another of the major problems we have to contend with. Although there’s no resemblance of a volcano here, we are stepping on one now,” says Geologist Vincenzo Morra, indicating the entire seismic area delineating Pozzuoli, Bacoli and Monte di Procida.

 As one of the eight science departments that employ 53 professionals qualified in different disciplines, part of the highly qualified technical staff works at the Vesuvius Observatory (INGV- National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology) located in Campi Flegrei. They obtain information at a technical level and signal any alerting numbers to the Civil Defence that might be dangerous for inhabitants in the surrounding area.

 During a guided visit at the monitoring headquarters for Campi Flegrei, Stromboli and Etna located in Via Deocliziano, it becomes clear that the seismic territory is indeed under microscopic watch and study. In the main observation room that looks very similar to Star Trek Enterprise, Volcanologist Roberto Isaia demonstrates around the clock sophisticated digital technology designed to detect daily earth activity and register any subtle changes.

“As you can see, the area is very closely monitored. Even the slightest alteration in the earth’s movement can be relevant, but we are well-qualified to spot any significantly dangerous activity,” asserts the volcanologist.

 “What we really need is civilian awareness and drills along with a proper evacuation plan. With the Flegrei area increasing in activity and pronounced at a ‘yellow’ level, prevention is the key. Currently, evacuation is set at 48-72 hours. If the population has no sense of awareness and does no evacuation drills, how can inhabitants be adequately prepared to evacuate an area if danger were to rise to an emergency level? People need information.”

 Clearly, the population needs to be educated on the seismic area it lives in and know how to act in case evacuation becomes necessary. All geologists agree that most of the Flegrei population does not perceive any danger at all. So, even though the observatory works closely with the nation’s civil protection to coordinate efficient evacuation, execution of such plans becomes next to impossible if civilians are not organized.

 In other high-risk geological areas as in Japan or the USA, communities have incorporated awareness and preparedness programs in schools, making them an integrated part of a child’s education. Unfortunately, at present there are no such drills or information made available to any of the Campi Flegrei area schools.

 Renewed just seven years ago, the INGV has been a world leader since the beginning of its operation in 1999 and many countries seek out the centre for learning opportunities in Earth Science excellence.

 The Bourbons who strongly felt the need for one, established the first Vesuvio Observatory in Ercolano. Although there is a new and high tech headquarters, the Ercolano centre is still open today and is the host for schools from all over that want to visit a real volcano observatory and see the work it performs.

 “Nearly 90 per cent of all constructions in the centre of Naples have been built with volcanic material,” Prof. Cappelletti continues, explaining once back at his university office that overlooks the historical part of the city.

 “Sure, it’s been risky using so much volcanic material, yet look at how much of a resource it has been to this city,” he concludes.

 Although the 50-year-old Science Department headquarters, better known as The House of Geologists, located in the historical centre of Naples is full of history, a new department is currently under construction in Sant’Angelo in the Fuorigrotta quarter, very near to the Campi Flegrei.

 Once it is operative, a series of important advantages for scientific department activities will be available.

 Solfatara, from late Latin Sulpha Terra meaning land of sulphur) is a site where you can visit boiling water up close with its vapours and steaming mud, and is one of the main attractions of the Phlegrean Fields. Known for its characteristically strong rotten egg-like smell, the earth, tormented by fire, creates surreal scenes of unimaginable colours displaying dramatic geysers, springs of gas, and bursts of hot mud and seismic tremors.