The tale of two articles: Are we going to destroy Naples?

Geologic and structural map showing the extent of the Campi Flegrei caldera on the north of the Bay of Naples, Italy. Image courtesy of INGV.

One of the writing assignments I always enjoyed in high school was the "compare and contrast". You could sit back and look for stylistic differences between writers and texts - potentially offering signs about the nature of the writers motivations.

I still find it fun - case in point, two article I read about the research drilling that is about to start at the Campei Flegrei in Italy. The Campei Flegrei is a large caldera system that most recently produced Monte Nuovo, a scoria cone on the north shore of the Bay of Naples. It also produced a very large eruption ~39,000 years ago that erupted ~150 km3 (along with the Roman myths of the entrance to Hades). It has produced a number of VEI 3-5 eruptions over the last 4,000 years.

Researchers from the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology's (INGV) Vesuvius Observatory in Naples plan to do some research, exploratory drilling up to 4 km into the caldera to look at the innards of the magmatic system - and to read the record of previous eruptions from the system. This depth of 4 km is thought to be much shallower than any magma chamber under the Campei Flegrei. Of course, there are some who might say that drilling into an active volcano like the Campei Flegrei is dangerous - and Dr. Buttner and Dietrich from Univ. of Wurzburg rightly point out that there is a minute chance that an explosive event might happen if the drill hit a pocket of vapor-saturated silica magma - however, the benefits of reading the history far outweigh this very remote chance of a game-ending eruption caused by the drill.

Anyway, what does this have to do the articles? Well, one article I read (the first one I read, in fact) was in Popular Science. The other was in New Scientist (sent to be me by the folks at Blogging Pompeii). Talk about stark differences in science journalism!

My notes on the Popular Science article read like a litany of science writing/volcano media frustrations:

  • Who are the "researchers"?
  • Who are the "critics"?
  • How deep will the drill hole go?
  • "Supercolossal"??
  • The drilling in Iceland was stopped because the rig broke, not because the fear of a giant eruption (as this implies).
  • The drill in Iceland did hit silicic magma - unlike what they say here!
  • The research is trying to "avoid" eruption? - rather we want to learn about previous eruptions to understand the likelihood of future eruptions.
  • Campei Flegrei is not Vesuvius!
  • Why is there a giant CGI eruption of Vesuvius(?) part of this article??

I could go on ... I was fuming: "What is wrong with you people?"

I decided to read the New Scientist article to fan the flames of anger, but thankfully it didn't. The first thing I noticed is that the Popular Science article was more-or-less cribbed from the New Scientist (or some other primary source) - the same sentences and phrases appear in both. However, what seems to have happened is the Popular Science article chopped out all the specifics like who the researchers and critics are, the depth of drilling, the real "science" in the article. It left out the quotes from the scientists and their pros and cons. More or less, it stripped down the news of the drilling to: DRILLING WILL KILL US ALL. Thankfully, the New Scientist article at least shows some moderation in the fear mongering (right down to the toned down title and picture of - gasp! - the Campei Flegrei hydrothermal field instead of doomsday CGI volcano). It means we can all get back to the science here.

Drilling in an active volcano for research or geothermal purposes isn't really anything new - we've done it at Hawai'i (where they hit magma), in Iceland (where they hit magma), at Mt. Unzen in Japan (where they drilled into the conduit), in the Philippines and more. Although a few drill rigs have been destroyed in the process, either through small explosions (and even smaller lava flows), none have lead to anything even close to a true "eruption" of the volcano. Our human drilling is nothing compared to all the geological processes that can make conduits for magma - faulting, explosions, volatiles - what we're doing is the equivalent of getting pricked with a tiny needle and worrying about the bloodloss. Sure, if you hit the exact right artery, you might be in trouble, but the chances are small for disaster. So, as I've suggested before, while it appears that drilling can increase seismicity, there doesn't seem to be a lot of good evidence that we can unleash an caldera-forming ignimbrite with our drilling ... maybe we just like to flatter ourselves about the effect we can have on the planet.

However, buried in the New Scientist article is this little gem that I personally find much more fascinating. A paper by Roberto Isaia due out in Geophysical Research Letters apparently suggests that "hazard planners should prepare for eruptions in decades or less" (my emphasis) at the Campei Flegrei. Wow! This is apparently predicted partly due to 3 meters of inflation at Pozzuoli since the 1960s. Now, why isn't this the news here?

More like this

Supercolossal - maybe the writers formerly had jobs coming up with product names for drinks and such at 7-11.

The sad thing is that the people who read Popular Science are non-scientists with a genuine interest in science, exactly the type of people we need to reach.

I think Supercolossal comes from the definition of VEI 7 eruptions. Have a look at the Wikipedia entry on VEI (Volcanic Explosivity Index):

About Campi Flegrei, there's not much information available about it on the Web, which I find strange, as:

- It's an active volcano
- Its last big eruption is geologically recent
- It's in a densely inhabited area
- A new VEI 7 eruption (Supercolossal) would not only mean the death of hundreds of thousands of people, but also the death of the italian economy

I would like to read more about it on Eruptions Blog, if possible!

By SHIRAKAWA Akira (not verified) on 10 Nov 2009 #permalink

Only do it if it is safe,if sometihng can go worng you should admit that and always ahve that in the back of your mind. If not if sometihng goes wrong people have a right to get mad and worried.

By Chance Metz (not verified) on 10 Nov 2009 #permalink

Maybe Dr. Boris Behncke can tell more about Campi Flegrei?

Maybe you can do your next volcano feature on this volcano?

Or perhaps have a guest vulcanologist do a feature on this volcano - or do a joint feature?

By Thomas Donlon (not verified) on 10 Nov 2009 #permalink

Almost all the volcano doom mongering focuses on Yellowstone or Toba, however, I did see one programme which focused on Campei Flegrei. It was the usual stuff, you know...massive blast, death etc etc. Forget the name of the programme now, but it was "interesting" they chose Campei Flegrei instead of the more obvious choices. As usual with such programmes there wasn't much science as to why it was a threat, so having done my own research (prior to watching that programme I might add) I knew about the uplift, however most scientists don't think it will erupt anytime soon.

Makes me laugh how people complain when a volcano erupts, especially in this case. People living in the vicinity of Campi Flegri and Vesuvius knowingly do so. They know the dangers and are well informed with the word active. If either erupt today they would probably kill at lot less than in the future. The government knows, already trying to encourage people off the slopes of Vesuvius with cash incentives.

So whats my point.. The eruptions inevitable people will die especially in naples as the roads are narrow and congested. No contingency plans could make adifference here. Although i have empathy for them, they choose to take the risk and live there. Drill the caldera for research whilst we can. Surely the data gained can outway the small percntage of Risk?...

By Stephen Tierney (not verified) on 10 Nov 2009 #permalink

The popular press will sensationalize and capitalize on the fears of the uninformed or uneducated. Don't expect too much more than that.

I would hope, however, that some there has been some actual evaluation of the danger of triggering an eruption. It's just due diligence.

It's been 3 years since the ongoing Sidoarjo mud volcano eruption was plausibly caused by drilling on the site, and both the lawsuits and the damage are ongoing. A little due diligence there might have actually saved lives.

Well I added this comment and the reference from Isaia to Wikipedia so that should get things humming. Please feel free to elaborate the edit.

"Recent inflation of the caldera centre in the vicinity of Pozzuoli may presage an eruptive event within decades."

I think this is one for Dr Behncke; he is this blog's specialist on Italian volcanoes, after all. I must confess to a certain alarm at the project. As far as I know, previous drill-holes (deliberately or accidentally) whether encountering live magma or drilled into live volcanoes, have involved either basalt, with a relatively low volatile content (Kilauea, Krafla) or silicic magma likewise: Unzen was chosen for the drilling project partly because it's eruptions have been largely non-explosive.

But this is a different case, not only have eruptions from this system frequently been very explosive indeed, but the caldera is currently in a period of intermittent inflation, with experts predicting a possible eruption of some sort within decades. Even if the inflation is not related to a shallow injection of magma, there might very well be an active high-pressure hydrothermal system under the caldera, at a much shallower depth than the magma itself. Drilling into such a system could produce a result rather more energetic than drilling into tar-thick trachyte

good points. we just don't really know. By drilling down and hiiitng magama you jsut might help a magama find a crack come up thorugh and erupt. Not that that means we would cause a eruption we would just make it happen sonner then it was going to erupt.

By Chance Metz (not verified) on 10 Nov 2009 #permalink

I used to love Popular Science back in the 1960's and 1970's, same with Scientific American and even The Economist until very recent years. They have all seemed to wandered off into a region where "conventional wisdom" and fanning controversy is their goal and facts take second place.

With great sadness I report that one won't find any recent issues of any of those periodicals in my home.

One the one hand: more knowlege is better than less knowlege.
I'd worry more about the drillers getting hurt, knowing what I know about dilling.
On the Other Hand ... has anyone heard of Aggie Engineering ?
Probably not, its a concept I invented myself a few years back.
Basically, a long time ago, the students at Texas A&M started building bonfires to celebrate Homecoming. Naturally, since its an Engineering College, every year the bonfire had to be bigger. Eventually, people got hurt. SO they made a policy change. A few years later, the bonfires were even bigger than before, and some people got killed. A few MORE years, and some more people got killed again by an even larger bonfire accident.
Essentially, engineers and scientists HAVE to make things bigger, faster, cheaper, until the new way kills someone. Then the process starts over.
The simple fact that we CAN drill into a volcano and learn things, doesnt necessarily mean we SHOULD.
That said, I hope they do it, and learn a lot, and hope like hell they dont hit a mud volcano.

There is always that risk. most volcanoes have a hydothermal sysem,drill into that and you might have a mess on your hands.

By Chance Metz (not verified) on 10 Nov 2009 #permalink

I don't know if anyone noticed this but it looks like Mayon is erutping ash now nonstop to 12,000 feet asl. tallk about a volcanoes that is taking it's time
to do something.

Received FVFE01 at 23:53 UTC, 10/11/09 from RJTD

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NXT ADVISORY: 20091111/0600Z=

By Chance Metz (not verified) on 10 Nov 2009 #permalink

CF is certainly worthy of being a featured volcano. It would be great if Boris Behncke could do something on it this system. I only just realized that not only is Campei Flegrei a stone's throw (pardon the expression) from Vesuvius but that it is also on the same line that extends from Vesuvius along the northern side of the bay out to Ischia. I wonder what the chances of a fissure eruption along this faultline are(presuming there is one from the map posted above)? I hope they are slim for Naples happens to be situated right slap bang in the middle of it!

By bruce stout (not verified) on 10 Nov 2009 #permalink

@Shirikawa Akira: The scientific literature is full of articles on the Campi Flegrei and there is an awful lot of work that goes on there. If there is not much mention of it in the popular press outside Italy, it is certainly not because it is not being studied. Perhaps people (other than the scientists) just don't have an interest in telling the rest of the world all about it - volcanism is a part of everyday life for many people in different regions of Italy. If, for example, I lived on Stromboli or Vulcano you can bet I wouldn't be blogging about it.

By MadScientist (not verified) on 11 Nov 2009 #permalink

You just have to know where to look I guess.

By Chance Metz (not verified) on 12 Nov 2009 #permalink

Those of you who use Wikipedia as a reference, please beware of the quality. Wikipedia has a number of problems, including biased or uninformed editors, subtle vandalism that may not be removed (especially from less read articles), and just bad sourcing of information. I'm not even willing to grant Wikipedia has good articles anywhere, but anything outside of the top 100 articles that are closely monitored (Evolution being one of the best), be aware.

Also, can someone provide a link to the map in this article? I would like to understand what the symbols mean.

I do not know how wikipedia fares in geology but I find it very reliable and useful in mathematics.

Since anyone can edit pages without review there will be minor errors to outright falsehoods or worse. A few weeks back I edited out random, insulting profanities on a biographical page that some anonymous fool had thrown up because he/she could easily edit.

But Wiki is likely the only source that comes up on the first page of a web search with general information on broad range of topics that the average person can understand and 'trust'. So it's probably useful for interested technical persons to review and edit content if such is required, rather than discount it outright. The designers intended such at least.

My issues with Wikipedia really center on the medical and certain other articles that offend the sensibilities of someone somewhere.

My problem with medical articles are that they are so wrong, that because they do come up first on a web search, they may give someone information that can be deathly. You should read about the anti-vaccination movement, which does everything they can to change wikipedia articles to fit their POV. Again, what if you read it before it's edit back to the scientific side of the story (the only one supported by research)?

On the geology side, there is a bit less controversy. But wait until the creationists decided to attack an articles (like the K-T event), so that it fits their POV of the world, that is, the earth is 5000 years old (give or take).

But the worst part of Wikipedia is that I know how to read science articles there, and review the literature, especially if something is controversial. But what if I'm reading an article on Henry VIII, do I have a clue if it's accurate or not? I won't.

Wikipedia has become the textbook for the University of Google education that the anti-science crowd is using to push homeopathy, creationism, and alien abductions.

I live in Pozzuoli... and will be checking this site often.

Hey thanks for the reading, It was excellent to finally read a great article that actually makes sense. I will be back in a bit to read some more. Good research

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