Puncturing an Ancient Supervolcano

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You have to wonder about the wisdom of drilling an active volcano. But at Italy's Campi Flegrei, that's exactly what scientists are planning to do, in an effort to learn about an ancient volcanic monster that could one day blow again.

Around 39,000 years ago, Campi exploded in a massive caldera-forming eruption, blanketing much of Europe in ash and perhaps contributing to the demise of the Neanderthals. It has had smaller eruptions every few centuries since then, including a spate of elevated activity 4,000 years ago, but scientists are wondering when it's going to go again.

From an article that appeared last week in New Scientist:

colleagues, Campi Flegrei is "one of the highest risk volcanic areas on

Earth" and may now be primed for a blast. Isaia and colleagues found

deposits from an intense period of eruptions around 4000 years ago.

Before the eruptions the Earth's crust rose by several metres all

across the caldera. Worryingly, crustal uplift is exactly what has

happened recently. Since the late 1960s, the port of Pozzuoli near the

caldera's centre has risen by around 3 metres.

Now, given that the city of Naples is nearby and that Pozzouli is clearly near ground zero of any potential eruption (see map), there's a lot on the line. But there is only a small, small chance that the drilling project could trigger an eruption — and then only if the volcano were very close to a critical state of stress anyway. So the risks are almost certainly outweigh the important scientific knowledge about volanoes' behavior and structure that stands to be gained from probing Campi Flegrei.

Still, if you were a scientist watching that drill core go down, down 4 kilometers beneath your feet, wouldn't you be just a little nervous?

Map: New Scientist