Poisionous gas threatens swimmers on Vulcano

An odourless, colourless and potentially lethal gas emanating from the sea off the coast of Vulcano in the Aeolian Islands could be putting swimmers at risk.

Poisionous gas threatens swimmers on Vulcano
Holiday makers revel in the volcanic muds of Vulcano. Photo: Denis Barthel

Vulcano draws tens of thousands of tourists each year, eager to sample the volcanic island's mud baths and hot springs.  

But now the island's tourism industry, which is an important economic resource for the council of Lipari, is under threat, after Italians civil protection authorities warned of dangerous gases emanating from the sea around the island.

The authorities have requested that the city of Lipari, the region of Sicily, the coastguard and the National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology prohibit bathing in the sea.

The issue dates back to the April 14th last year, when a nine-year-old French boy named Julien felt ill and collapsed on the beach with the island's famous hot springs.

On the day that holidaymaker Julien collapsed the air was still and sultry – and according to the medical authorities, laden with carbon dioxide gas, la Repubblica reported.

Near the beach and the adjacent thermal mud baths, there are many natural vents where volcanic gasses leave the earth.

According to the health authorities such vents are dangerous because, “in the absence of winds they can produce high concentrations of an odourless and potentially lethal gas”.

The national institute for geophysics and volcanology is constantly monitoring the situation on the island. They told La Repubblica why the situation was so dangerous, in particular for swimmers.

“When carbon dioxide passes over the surface of the sea it cools and becomes denser, settling over the surface of the water.” This process makes the air at breathing level above the water toxic for bathers.

Carbon dioxide is not a gas to be underestimated. In 1986 a sudden outgassing from beneath volcanic lake Nyos in Cameroon killed an estimated 1,700 people within a 25km radius.

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Island of Vulcano in Sicily on alert for increased volcanic activity

Italy's Civil Protection issued an "amber alert" for the island of Vulcano in Sicily's Aeolian archipelago on Saturday, on the back of significant changes in several volcanic parameters.

A tourist walks in the fumaroles of a crater on the volcanic island of Vulcano in Italy.
A tourist walks in the fumaroles of a crater on the volcanic island of Vulcano, one of the Aeolian Islands, in the Tyrrhenian Sea, Italy, on September 19th, 2019. VALERY HACHE / AFP

“The values are outside the norm in the top part only in the Vulcano crater,” said Lipari mayor Marco Giogianni in a live broadcast on Facebook, following a meeting with experts from the National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology (INGV) and Civil Protection, Italy’s emergency body.

Marco Pistolesi, a vulcanology professor at the University of Pisa, also tweeted about the change in the alert level, referring to “increased degassing, temperatures, seismicity and deformation”.

“For those who know the island, this has never been observed before,” he wrote.

The last eruption on Vulcano was over 130 years ago and lasted from August 2nd, 1888 to March 22nd, 1890.

It has been still since then, but this “sleep” is sometimes disturbed by seismic activity crises and increases in steaming volcanic gas emissions from vents (fumaroles) – the most recent was in 1985, Italian daily Corriere Della Sierra reported late Saturday.

The mayor was expected to issue an order to prevent people from climbing to the top of the crater at around 500 metres, a 40-minute walk, the paper said.

The population of the island is always at risk due to gas-rich, high-temperature fumaroles, but with increased activity, there is a danger that the fumaroles could  intensify and extend over larger areas.