The Italian Volcano Threat

by Jonah Goldberg

Just because you’ve been distracted from the burning need for airborne-laser volcano-lancing technology doesn’t mean the threat is any less dire:

Unlike the relatively modest eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland in the spring of 2010, an eruption of Campi Flegrei would be beyond human imagination. It last erupted in 1538, killing dozens of people and creating the 1,500-foot-high Monte Nuovo. An eruption in this area more than 39,000 years ago had the same effect as a giant meteorite landing; it created the eight-mile wide depression that now forms the caldera.

“[An eruption of] Campi Flegrei could generate global, worldwide catastrophes,” De Natale tells NEWSWEEK. “If it erupted, it would be really a complete catastrophe at a global scale, with millions of casualties, strong climate changes, perhaps causing a small ice age, and sterilization [contamination] of several hundred thousand square kilometers of European land for centuries.”

The project has set off a passionate scientific and philosophical debate in a country where the idea of a volcano that could bury a city is more than just myth. Should they heed the rumblings under the earth and use science to evaluate the danger, possibly helping Naples avoid the tragedy that befell Pompeii? Or is it better not to tempt fate by drilling into the massive volcanic cauldron for fear that the work will disturb whatever combination of luck and geology has been keeping the city safe for thousands of years? The conflict has finallly bubbled over, prompting the mayor of Naples, Rosa Russo Iervolino, to delay the start of the project and call a meeting this week in Rome to determine whether it’s safe to move forward.

In the pro-drilling camp there is the soft-spoken, professorial De Natale, who speaks of volcanoes as if they are human beings, who believes that the increasing rise and fall of the land around Naples is a precursor to a major volcanic event and that its exploration is essential to the survival of the people in this part of Italy.On the other side are experts who say that De Natale’s drilling project could compromise the integrity of the caldera, setting off a potentially deadly chain of events. Benedetto De Vivo, a professor of geochemistry at the University of Naples, says probing the area could rattle the volcano, leading to earthquakes, explosions, and devastating pollution if noxious gases are inadvertently released from the caldera. “The risks here are enormous,” he tells NEWSWEEK. “You just don’t do an experiment like this in an urban area.”

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