Geohazards in Italy
Italy is a region of the world with dynamic geology. It is active tectonically and as such it is no stranger to both earthquakes and volcanoes. The country has a string of volcanoes along its western seaboard, as well as volcanic islands such as Vulcano (where the name of all volcanoes is derived), with the almost constantly active volcanoes of Stromboli and Mount Etna on Sicily itself.
Although not currently erupting, the volcanoes of the Bay of Naples – Vesuvius and Campi Flegrei - are most certainly not extinct and will erupt again in the future.
Italy is also one of the most earthquake-prone countries in Europe, most occur in the Apennine mountain chain that runs down the centre of Italy. A number of devastating events have occurred in the last decade or so, including the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake, sadly resulting in numerous deaths and damage to houses and infrastructure.
Vesuvius from Naples, showing the urban sprawl that extends part way up the volcano
With a population of 3 million people in Naples, Vesuvius is arguably one of the highest risk volcanoes anywhere in the world. It also has one of the longest written histories of any volcano, indeed, the AD 79 eruption that destroyed Pompeii and many other settlements around Vesuvius, is the earliest description of a volcanic eruption, written by Pliny the Younger. He beautifully described the initial phase of the eruption- the development of the towering possibly 30km high plume as being similar to a Neapolitan pine, with a slender trunk and wider spreading branches at its top.
On the western side of Naples lies the volcanic complex of Campi Flegrei, where more than a million people live inside the caldera. This volcano is the site of the largest eruption to have occurred in the last few million years - the Campanian Ignimbrite eruption 39,000 years ago and the Neapolitan Yellow Tuff 15,000 years ago. Around 50 eruptions have occurred in the last 15,000 years, almost all of which were explosive.
Student activities around Naples
During the trip, we visit a number of archaeological sites around the volcano to study the products of the AD 79 eruption, logging a detailed section of the pyroclastic deposits formed, allowing students to unravel the physical processes involved in this fascinating eruption. This includes the timing of the different phases of the eruption, from the initial convecting eruption column to the formation the lethal pyroclastic density currents. In addition, we visit the ruins of Pompeii, discussing different aspects of the eruption. We also go to the summit crater which allows us to see the products of the last eruption of Vesuvius in 1944. Within Campi Flegrai, students see evidence of remarkable ground deformation over the last few decades in the centre of this restless caldera.
Vesuvius from the Western Side of Campi Flegrei volcano. This is close to the location where the AD 79 eruption was observed by Pliny the Younger.
A student measuring layers in the AD 79 pyroclastic deposits near Pompeii
During the second part of the trip we visit the Abruzzo region a few hours to the east of Rome. We visit the Avezzano basin, a huge plain that was once a lake that has been repeately drained since Roman times, which was the site of a deadly earthquake in 1915 that killed around 32,000 people. The former lake is significant as this contributed to amplifying the ground shaking associated with the earthquake, increasing the damage and fatalities.
One of the most recent earthquakes to occur in the region damaged the city of L’Aquila in 2009, which caused ~ 300 deaths and caused ~$1billion worth of damages. Parts of the city have been rebuilt, but there are still many buildings that have not yet been fixed. The city is no stranger to being damaged by earthquakes, it was also badly damaged in 1703, and there is evidence of this earthquake that can still be seen in the city today.
We also spend time looking at an active fault scarp, where the hillside has been broken and offset by repeated earthquakes occur the last 15,000 years.
Student activities in Abruzzo
During the trip, the students study an active fault, learning to identify faults from observing the geomorphology, making measurements, and determining the nature of the movement along these important geological features. They also get to practice putting their observations and measurements onto a map, a key skill for geologists.
To understand the human impacts of earthquakes, we visit L’Aquila that suffered significant damage from a recent earthquake in 2009. The town is still being rebuilt in many places, and we spend time studying the building damage and reconstruction of the city. The students work independently in small groups to do a survey of damaged buildings to see how reconstruction is progressing and to compare the impact of the earthquake on different building styles.
The Campo Felice fault scarp in the Apennine mountains, near to the city of L'Aquila
A building in the town of L’Aquila showing extensive damage from the earthquake in 2009
Watch Adrienne, BSc (Hons) Geology student, talk about the Italy field trip and her Clearing experience.
"Being in the field and getting hands-on with some of the equipment has been really fun."
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