The Sleeping Giants of Italy
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you might be snorkeling above Europe’s largest crater.
People flock to Italy for any number of reasons — the art, the fashion, the pasta Bolognese. But volcanoes? Believe it or not, my lovely country boasts the highest number and concentration of volcanoes in Europe. According to the Italian Center for National Research, the country has:
10 active volcanoes, plus 12 more sleeping giants, that could erupt at any time.
This means that Italians are among the most exposed in the world to volcanic explosions. Remember what happened in Pompeii back in 79 A.D., when a catastrophic eruption buried thousands of fleeing villagers under a carpet of ash? Well a disaster like that could happen again — with even more dire consequences. “Italy lies in a very unfortunate spot: right at the intersection of the Eurasian and African plates that are constantly scraping against one another and boosting the underground trapped pressure,” explains Mario Sprovieri, an underwater geology researcher.
Rome, in particular, is located in a surprisingly high-risk area, with the Papal Villas sitting close to a network of craters. Near Naples, there’s an active volcano known as La Solfatara, which spews geysers and steam around the clock. But locals are unfazed, even daring to picnic in the volcano’s shadow, figuring as long as this relatively little one vents its anger, then King Vesuvius won’t blow its top. The majority of Italy’s volcanoes are found in Sicily, and the neighboring Aeolian Islands are popular vacation spots for their idyllic coastlines — and cluster of nasty craters. Volcano hunters travel from all over the world to gaze at the breathtaking lava flows of Vulcano, Stromboli and Strombolicchio isles.
The most deadly volcano of all is in fact unknown to most people.
Mount Vesuvius might give Napoli bragging rights, but Sicilians stake their claim to fame at the base of mighty Mount Etna, which “is Europe’s largest and most active volcano and has recently been crowned a UNESCO World Heritage site,” says Domenico Patané of Italy’s National Institute of Volcanology and Geophysics. Etna has frequent eruptions — a positive sign that it’s releasing energy, thereby reducing the odds of a more violent explosion. And considering that a quarter of Sicily’s residents live on the slopes of the volcano, its activity is constantly monitored by authorities, assures Patané.
But we all know that predicting when a sleeping giant will awaken is nearly impossible. Especially if it’s hidden some 9,800 feet below sea level. The most deadly volcano of all is in fact unknown to most people. Marsili, a “submarine volcano,” lies deep underwater in the Tyrrhenian Sea between Sicily and Calabria’s coast (Italy’s toe). Were it to erupt, it could do more damage than Mount Vesuvius and Etna combined, warns Sprovieri, by triggering huge tsunamis capable of wiping out entire villages along the coasts of Southern Italy. A volcanic apocalypse, if you will.
Marsili last erupted some 3,000 years ago, which sounds reassuring — and freaking alarming. Volcanologists fear its long sleep could be coming to an end, given the recent, constant underwater activity detected by authorities. But there is a silver lining. Given that the Mediterranean is a closed, relatively small sea, a blast would destroy only half of Italy. So start packing for your next trip to Il Bel Paese. There’s no time to waste!