A supervolcano eruption is the stuff of nightmares, on the level of giant asteroids hitting Earth and self-replicating robots consuming everything on the planet. Perhaps the most well-known supervolcano is the Yellowstone Caldera, a volcano that released about 240 cubic miles of debris into the sky hundreds of thousands of years ago. But there are other supervolcanoes on the planet. One of them–Campi Flegrei–is located just outside of Naples, Italy.
Scientists are worried that a growing bulge in the ground around the volcano may indicate an impending eruption. To find out if that’s actually happening, they’re planning to drill into the supervolcano’s crust. But as we have seen, even the most well-intentioned drilling schemes can have unintended consequences. (i.e. earthquakes triggered by geothermal drilling). In this case, those consequences might include triggering a volcanic eruption.
The Campi Flegrei caldera’s explosive potential is much like the Yellowstone Caldera; the last eruption 39,000 years ago destroyed much of the Mediterranean. The big difference: Campi Flegrei is located outside a major city, while Yellowstone is in a much more rural area. Even a tiny eruption at Campi Flegrei could threaten large swaths of the southern Italian population.
Earlier this year, the mayor of Naples approved the first stage of a plan to drill into the Campi Flegrei caldera. Not everyone is happy about this. One scientist, Benedetto De Vivo of Naples University, told Reuters that he’s concerned about the potential for drilling to cause an explosion. After all, if geothermal drilling and fracking can both cause earthquakes, why couldn’t drilling around the volcano set something off? We have attempted to reach De Vivo, but so far haven’t been successful.
The tradeoff is that drilling could reveal important geological information about the volcano, possibly allowing scientists to detect signs of major eruptions before they happen–something that could save millions of lives. And scientists will never know if their drilling hurts or helps unless they try.