Mouth of Hell

Article excerpt

Byline: Barbie Nadeau

Could probing a volcano under Naples avert disaster or cause it?

The area around Naples is called the Campi Flegrei: the Burning Fields. The ancient Romans said the entrance to Hades was here, and to this day it remains at the mercy of hellish forces. In Pozzuoli, a town just north of the city, the earth has risen and dipped more than 11 feet in the past decade, destroying roads, a hospital, and thousands of homes. And on the outskirts of town, fields of boiling mud and sulfur spouts are a constant reminder that Naples sits on one of the world's most dangerous volcanoes.

Stretching across the Bay of Naples to the islands of Capri and Ischia, the Campi Flegrei caldera puts nearby Mount Vesuvius to shame, both in size and in its potential threat to the area's 4 million people. Giuseppe De Natale, head of research at the National Observatory for Geophysics and Volcanology, calls it a super-volcano, with the potential to affect the entire planet. Its eruption more than 35,000 years ago had the impact of a giant meteorite; the scar it left is eight miles across. If it erupts again, De Natale warns, "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 [contamination] of several hundred thousand square kilometers of European land for centuries."

De Natale is behind a $14 million international project to assess the danger by drilling deep into Campi Flegrei, the largest such project in the history of volcanic research. But his plan has set off a fierce debate. Opponents warn that the drilling could unleash deadly forces. Benedetto De Vivo, a professor of geochemistry at the University of Naples, says penetrating the caldera could cause earthquakes, explosions, and devastating pollution if noxious gases are released from underground. "The risks here are enormous," he says. "You just don't do an experiment like this in an urban area."

De Vivo's worries can't be entirely discounted. …