Thursday, May 24, 2012

Italian Government Approves Drilling Into Campi Flegrei

The Italian government has reversed a previous decision to disallow drilling into the Campi Flegrei supervolcanic region after concerns about the potential for increased seismicity and triggering of a super eruption were assuaged. The government had previously banned the project, which aims to drill some 4km below the earth's surface in the caldera to gain more knowledge about the composition of the massive magma chamber. Concerns were raised that drilling could cause an eruption, or dramatic rise in earthquakes.

Italy's relationship with geologists was recently damaged when Italian courts charged scientists with "failing to accurately predict a large earthquake" last year, in a move that was decried by the larger scientific community.

The new drilling plan is actually an investigatory operation that is going to look into the potential to develop geothermal energy in the area, as well as gauge the potential for future eruptions. The region has seen massive uplift since the 1960's, with former nautical ports that used to be below sea level now rising approximately 10 feet above it. This means inflation.

Inflation of magma chambers does not mean an eruption is imminent, but it is certainly motion towards a possible eruption in the future. However many so-called supervolcanoes regularly breathe in and out, from Yellowstone, to Long Valley, and of course Campi Flegrei. Campi Flegrei was last active in 1538, when the Monte Nuevo volcanic cone was formed. So the volcano does in fact have a record of recent historical eruptions, unlike the Yellowstone or Long Valley calderas. In fact, it is one of the only supervolcanoes on earth to have erupted in historical time, aside from the massive eruption of Tambora in 1815 (a VEI 7 event) which caused the famed "Year without a summer".

While it is highly unlikely that any drilling into Campi Flegrei would ever cause such a massive event, it is absolutely possible that minor quakes and tremblors will result from drilling into the magma chamber. Many volcanoes and volcanic areas around the world experience heightened seismicity, such as Clear Lake on the US West Coast, Hengill in Iceland, and Salton Buttes (Salton Sea). It would not surprise me in the least if drilling caused minor mag 1.0-3.5 quakes if the area is in fact developed into a geothermal farm.

In any case, the data produced by the investigative drilling will be of significant interest to the scientific community, and to the Italians, who live under constant threat of some very large, and very powerful volcanoes like Vesuvius. Better understanding of their volcanoes can only help the community and the world at large prepare for an eventual eruption.

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