About Natural Disasters: Campi Flegrei, the Phlegrean Fields

I dug up this 2013 post as background for this past week’s excellent blog post by volcanologist Erik Klemetti on Campi Flegrei in Italy–it may warming up again (but there is nothing to indicate an eruption is likely in our lifetimes, let alone imminent).

In the midst of life we are in death …

An article about a volcano shouldn’t mention that, I suppose – or perhaps all such articles should. It can go either way.

Volcanoes do deal death and destruction all around, but at the same time they’re enriching and feeding us.

Anyway, the line came to me while reading up on this week’s volcano, Campi Flegrei, on the other side of Naples from Vesuvius. As mentioned last week, this is Vesuvius’ Granddaddy in terms of size and potential threat.

Vesuvius can and has messed up the Naples region.

Campi Flegrei can and has messed up a 2- to 4-million-km2 area stretching from the central Mediterranean to Russia, possibly even delivering the final coup de grace to the fading Neanderthal species of humans at the same time. (Edit: I have done more reading since writing this post and it seems most likely now that this Campanian Ignimbrite eruption, while devastating, happened after the Neanderthals had gone into a decline; not all experts agree that its major source was Campi Flegrei, either.)

This bad boy…

Source:  hillman54
Source: hillman54


This huge and deadly caldera:

Source:  Porfirio
Source: Porfirio


This supervolcano:

Source:  Michele Costigliola
Source: Michele Costigliola

[rant] OK, Art Department, now I know you’re messing with me, just wait until I… [/rant]
Living in the Volcano

Actually all those images are in Campi Flegrei. A lot of Western history has happened there, and today some 1.5 million people live inside its massive crater.


Well, for one thing, Campi Flegrei is so big you can’t really see it unless you know what to look for. A lot of people have moved in over the centuries without knowing what they were getting into.

After all, it wasn’t until the late 20th/early 21st century that we realized supervolcanoes are a thing.

Also, unlike nearby Vesuvius, which is a stratovolcano, Campi Flegrei’s caldera is fairly flat and so, with its Mediterranean location, most of the volcano is underwater.

Let’s start with some more normal-sized features of Campi Flegrei that even the Neolithic people who first established themselves in the region would have recognized as volcanism or whatever they believed it to be.

I’m talking fire and brimstone here.

It’s brimstone at the Solfatara crater or fumarole within Campi Flegrei’s caldera, a site that has drawn tourists since the days of the early Greeks and Romans all the way through to the present. (Note: Click “Vimeo” below to see the full-sized video, where the text can be read more easily.)


Like all supervolcanoes, not all of this volcano’s eruptions are “super.”

Its name, either in Italian or English, means “Burning Fields,” and Campi Flegrei has lived up to that with episodes of fairly “normal” volcanic fire during recorded times.

Monte Nuovo is the site of the most recent, and one of the smallest, eruptions within Campi Flegrei. Per this source, with some links I added:

At about 2000 on 29 Sep[tember, 1538], a crack opened … next to the ancient (Roman) settlement of Tripergole. According to contemporary sources, the newly opened vent emitted vast amounts of pumice, fire, and black and white “smoke”. Much of the ejecta fell as muddy ash, indicating that water played a significant role in the initial stages of the eruption.

Studies of the deposits revealed a sequence of rapidly alternating eruptive styles reflecting varying degrees of magma-water interactions (Di Vito et al. 1987). The basal Mte. Nuovo deposits are flow (surge) deposits. That the flows were relatively cool is indicated by the lack of welding, degassing pipes and signs of plastic deformation. The flows (or surges) did not flow beyond a few hundred m from the vent. …

Vigorous activity of this kind occurred during the first 24 h of the eruption, followed by 2 days of lesser activity. Ash from the initial activity fell over a wide area, as far as Apulia and Calabria, and larger fragments fell even in the Vesuvian region.

The bulk of the new cone was probably built during the first 24 h or little more, and when first climbed on 2 Oct, some kind of “boiling” was observed within the crater. This activity was interpreted by Di Vito et al. (1987) as Strombolian (maybe fountaining from a lava lake).

Activity increased somewhat on 3 Oct (possibly Strombolian followed by hydromagmatic), but was very weak again on 4-5 Oct, and during most of the 6th. The low level activity caused many curious to visit the new volcano on that Sunday. At 2200 on the 6th, however, a sudden explosion occurred, killing 24 visitors. This explosion apparently broke through the SSE flank of the cone or occurred as a powerful blast of scoria directed southwards. …

Following the fatal 6 Oct explosion, all activity of the volcano was limited to fumarolic activity.

After that eruption, nearby Pozzuoli was, of course, devastated (as was much of the adjacent area). However, the local noble family moved back into town and encouraged everybody else to follow them, since the eruption was over and access to the bay (the source of local business) hadn’t been harmed.

That actually worked out pretty well for everybody, too, though the bradyseism was (and still is) unnerving.


As eloquent as those 16th century nobles probably were, they wouldn’t have had a hope of convincing people to come back if there had been satellites back in the day.

This is Campi Flegrei - everything you see here, including the Gulf of Pozzuoli.  (NASA, by way of Wikipedia)
This. This is Campi Flegrei. You have to go into space to see the whole thing. It’s pretty much everything you see here on land or in the water (click to enlarge). The human infrastructure is western Naples and suburbs, and some tourists out sailing. (NASA, by way of Wikipedia)


Campi Flegrei and People

Of course they monitor the bejeezez out of Campi Flegrei, just as they do Vesuvius. Researchers also study it (PDF), which isn’t easy, considering that the caldera is covered, not only with a lot of water but also with a major metropolitan area plus the residual of thousands of years of human habitation – and the 38 cubic miles/160 cubic kilometers of material it erupted in “the big one” 39,000 years ago, as well as the wreck left over after the caldera collapsed, don’t help any, either.

Outside of academia, local and national emergency management people are aware (Italian) of the problem. International media frequently carry scary stories about it.

So why don’t many of those 1.5 million Neapolitans move out of the caldera?

Well, it’s home to them and their ancestors, going all the way back, in some cases, to the Romans and Greeks and maybe even further.

It’s beautiful here, most of the time. A good living can be made here, most of the time. Family and friends live and are buried here.

It’s the usual complex human story.

People have a history, thousands of years long, through good and bad times, with the region underlain by the Campi Flegrei caldera. With something like that holding you there, would you move?

Some of us would, some wouldn’t. Singer-songwriter Edoardo Bennato chose to write a song about it.

Campi Flegrei

Lyrics in English by way of Google Translate:

I’m already seven o’clock in the air there is a sound
Magda is perhaps studying the plan.
Lino calls me down from the courtyard:
It’s his voice I can certainly not miss it.

People who spend that sound it makes …
It is not a country is not a city.
But it was sweet was sweet for me …
That road is dear to me that there is the most expensive …

Campi Flegrei, people coming and going,
Time of April, a few years ago.
Old pianino sounds to me
That song … Campi Flegrei …

Festive evening are all out
And the boulevard, many colors.
How much is happiness?
Twenty pounds only, the carousel is there …

But if I think about it, perhaps even since then
I had this fear inside,
This anger, this anxiety that
I still take away far from you …

In the midst of life, we are in death…and that is good, for otherwise we wouldn’t appreciate life’s big and little wonders nearly as much as we do now.


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