In southern Italy, several hundred thousand people live in a volcanic caldera that has seen a recent increase in seismic activity. Residents are divided between concern and resignation, while the authorities keep an eye on the situation.
I’m near Naples, Vesuvius and Pompeii, in the much lesser-known Italian city of Pozzuoli, which sits on a huge magmatic caldera that, over millennia, has created a volcanic landscape known as Campi Flegrei. Lately, this unstable geology has triggered thousands of small earthquakes.
I am invited to follow the scientists of the Vesuvian Observatory of the Italian Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology as they monitor the activity inside a crater whose gas emissions seem particularly intense.
“In these areas the gas emissions come from the depths of the subsoil”, explains Mauro Antonio Di Vito, director of the Institute, as we walk among the fumaroles (vents in the earth’s surface where hot volcanic gases and vapors are emitted).
“Observing and understanding how these emissions change over time is important for characterizing what happens deep in the magma chamber,” he adds.
Real-time data on gas emissions, seismic activity, and soil and air temperatures are monitored 24 hours a day from a huge control room at the Institute’s headquarters.
“In September we had more than 1000 earthquakes in one month. Of course, most of the earthquakes are of very low magnitude, with some reaching magnitude 3.8, 4.0 or even 4.2. Now the process has slowed down. But we know that this can change, we cannot do anything but continue to monitor the territory with the utmost attention”, explains Mauro Antonio Di Vito.
“We are almost used to this phenomenon, it has become our friend,” say the locals
Residents here seem accustomed to these uncertainties. Historically prone to eruptions, the area also has a geological feature known as “bradyseism”. Driven by magma and gases, the ground moves up and down as if it were breathing. Sometimes, these movements cause potentially dangerous shocks to buildings and people.
One of the neighborhoods of Pozzuoli was evacuated in 1970 during one of these shocks. It has since been partially rebuilt, but no one lives here anymore.
The local painter, Antonio Isabettini, agrees to show me around. He was just a teenager when his family was evacuated from the area.
“3000 people lived here, who were evicted in two days. I remember that there was great confusion, that’s for sure, because from morning to night we found ourselves surrounded by the army, buses and the police,” Antionio reveals .
Today, at age 68, Antonio still paints the volcanic landscapes that have defined and challenged his entire life.
“We listened to the tremors. We felt them. Let’s say that we are almost used to this phenomenon, it has become our friend”, he says standing in front of one of his paintings of volcanic landscapes. “The important thing is that it doesn’t hurt us. But I’m sure it will never hurt us.”
“The new generations tend to forget that they live on a volcano”
But beyond all illusions, is the densely populated area prepared should the situation worsen? I put the question to the regional Civil Protection, which monitors the safety of 1.5 million people potentially at risk.
Evacuation plans for volcanic activity have been in place for years. Now a specific plan for bradyseism is also being developed, says Italo Giulivo, director of the Civil Protection of the Campania Region.
The capacity of essential services and transport infrastructure is being assessed and communication strategies are being outlined, explains Giulivo.
“The fact that the last eruption here occurred in 1538 means that new generations of people tend to forget that they live on a volcano. This lowers the perception of risk. We don’t want to reassure the population, we want to let them know what the problem is so that they are aware of it,” he explains.
“You can only really face it if you are well prepared”
Whether worried or calm about the recent earthquakes, residents are demanding accurate scientific assessments, detailed risk mitigation actions, achievable evacuation plans and clear communication guidelines.
Anna Peluso, a mother of two, shares updates on Facebook about the area’s capricious geology. The tremors have forced her son’s school to be evacuated three times since September.
“Volcanic risk is something you can anticipate. It gives you signals and you can deal with it. But you can only really deal with it if you are well prepared. My group’s motto is “To be prepared‘, which is Latin for ‘Be ready’.
“There are many people who show no interest in the phenomenon. People know what time the Napoli football team will play tomorrow, but they don’t even know where the evacuation meeting point is.”
Along with evacuation plans, the area faces another pressing issue: taking care of buildings that are starting to show clear signs of fragility. To understand what is at stake, I meet the mayor of Pozzuoli, Luigi Manzoni.
New construction is prohibited and public buildings have been strengthened, the mayor says. Local authorities cannot directly assist private owners, he says, but a recent national decree should help assess the number, distribution and condition of fragile residences.
“This decree allows us to carry out a vulnerability assessment of buildings located within parts of the bradyseism zone. In total the buildings affected are approximately 15,000, of which approximately 9,500 in the city of Pozzuoli, 2,000 in Bacoli and 3,000 in Naples.” says Manzoni.
The tourism industry fears the “destructive” impact of a high alert level
In the capital Rome, authorities recently discussed a possible increase in the alert level, from the current low-risk yellow alert to the much more restrictive orange alert.
The move was ultimately rejected, to the relief of the tourism and service sectors.
Increasing the alert level without indisputable scientific justification would return the region to a Covid-19 style stalemate, Gennaro Martusciello, vice president of the local hoteliers’ association, tells me, meeting us in his four-star hotel.
“An orange zone would mean that only those who work or live within the city limits will be able to enter. In other words, it would mean the destruction of tourist activity. How can you visit a city without being allowed to enter or leave? In our sector they work almost 50,000 people, so it would really be a major disaster.”
Residents hope that experts and authorities will make the right decision, whatever it may be.
“I think we will be able to sleep peacefully,” says Antonio Isabettini in front of the splendid Italian seafront.
“We live in symbiosis with this natural phenomenon. It is true that it raises some concerns, but on the other hand we consider ourselves lucky to live in one of the most beautiful places in the world, full of history, full of legends. …”, he concludes.