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Where are Italy's active volcanoes and how dangerous are they?

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Where are Italy's active volcanoes and how dangerous are they?
Smoke rising the Vesuvius volcano, east of Naples, in July 2017. Photo by Eliano IMPERATO / AFP

A series of tremors including a powerful 4.4-magnitude quake shook Italy's volcanic Campi Flegrei on Monday evening – but that’s not the only active volcano in the country.


A flurry of tremors of a strength not seen in four decades hit the volcanic Campi Flegrei area, just west of the southern city of Naples, on Monday evening, sparking panic among residents but resulting in no major damage according to authorities. 

But the Campi Flegrei –  a large caldera consisting of some 24 different craters – is not the only volcano in the country as Italy is one of Europe's most volcanically active areas due to its peculiar location.

READ ALSO: 'We have to live with fear': Panic as tremors shake Italy's Campi Flegrei

The Italian peninsula spans two tectonic plates: the Eurasian Plate and the African Plate, which meet between Sicily and the mainland.

At the boundary between the two, one is forced under the other and sinks into the Earth's hot mantle, with the water within it being squeezed out at high pressure and helping to form magma, which then forces its way to the surface and bursts through in the form of a volcano.

Both volcanoes and earthquakes are common around such boundaries – in this case, south-western Italy.

The area has three main hotspots: a chain of volcanoes in and around the Gulf of Naples in Campania; another cluster in north-eastern Sicily; and a third near Pantelleria, a small island located some 106 kilometres south-west of Sicily.

While most of Italy’s volcanoes have been dormant for at least 100 years, three have been active over the past century: Stromboli on its own island off northern Sicily, Etna in north-eastern Sicily, and Vesuvius in the Gulf of Naples.


Located just nine kilometres east of Naples, Vesuvius has maintained an ominous silence since 1944, when its last major eruption destroyed several nearby villages, killing 216 people and injuring 112. 

The volcano is known for its deadly eruptions: in 79 AD, it completely wiped out the Roman city of Pompeii, while an eruption in 1631 buried nearby villages in lava, killing some 3,000 people.

A view of the city of Naples and the Vesuvius volcano

A view of the city of Naples and the Vesuvius volcano in January 2016. Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP

Nearly three centuries later, in 1906, Vesuvius caused the cancellation of Italy’s summer Olympics as it erupted two years before Rome was due to host the Summer Games, forcing the government to put the funds into rebuilding Naples and organisers to look for an alternative venue (the Games eventually took place in London).


If Vesuvius erupts again, as experts predict it will, the devastation could be huge: the longer the period of inactivity, the more explosive the eruption tends to be. But the biggest risk factor is how close Vesuvius lies to Naples – Italy's third biggest city. 

Italian authorities have been monitoring the volcano's activity closely over the years and have drawn up plans to evacuate as many as 700,000 people if the signs point to an imminent eruption. 

The Campi Flegrei volcanic area, which was hit by the most powerful seismic swarm in 40 years on Monday evening, lies only around 5 kilometres west of Vesuvius.

It is an active volcanic caldera - the hollow left after an eruption - stretching from the outskirts of Naples into the sea.

The Campi Flegrei last spewed lava, ashes and rocks in 1538, but has since been hit by hundreds of earthquakes, with seismic activity intensifying in the past two years amid fears of an imminent eruption.

READ ALSO: Do scientists think the Campi Flegrei will actually erupt anytime soon?

Further, the ground around the centre of the caldera has been constantly rising since 2005 due to a phenomenon called bradyseism, where the movement of molten rock, magma and gases causes the surface of the Earth to rise and subside. 


Half a million people currently live in the Campi Flegrei region. 


Alone on its sparsely populated island, Stromboli is the smallest but most active of the three, having erupted at regular intervals for much of the past 2,000 years.

The volcano last erupted in 2019, killing a 35-year-old hiker from Messina. Before 2019, Stromboli erupted in 2014, 2013, 2007, 2003 and 2002. 

View of the eruption of the Stromboli volcano in July 2019 on the Stromboli island

View of the eruption of the Stromboli volcano in July 2019 on the Stromboli island, north of Sicily. Photo by Mario CALABRESI / Twitter account of @mariocalabresi / AFP

The 2002 eruption was one of the most violent events on record as magma cascaded into the sea and prompted a tidal wave which swept away piers, boats and buildings, and left six people injured.

Geologists have coined a term – ‘strombolian’ – to describe the distinctive type of eruption which the volcano has been associated with: a series of bursts that send molten rock and ash shooting into the air as high as hundreds of metres.


Etna has also been active over the past century, and has a far deadlier record than Stromboli: at least 77 deaths can be attributed to its eruptions over the centuries, though some records claim the total may actually be in the thousands.


The higher death toll is partly due to Etna's size – at more than 3,300 metres, it's more than twice the height of Italy's second largest volcano, Vesuvius – and its proximity to populated areas; for centuries people have been drawn to the mountain for the rich volcanic soil found on its slopes, which supports abundant crops and orchards.

Etna's most destructive eruption on record took place in 1669, when lava swept through villages on Etna's slopes all the way down to Catania, on Italy's eastern coast. Defensive walls protected the city and sent molten rock plunging into the harbour.

Major eruptions have taken place roughly twice a decade since the 1970s, often accompanied by earthquakes. 

A NASA satellite photo shows the ongoing eruption of Europe's largest, Mount Etna, on the island of Sicily in October 2002

A NASA satellite photo shows the eruption of Europe's largest, Mount Etna, on the island of Sicily in October 2002. Photo by NASA / AFP

The last time an eruption resulted in the loss of human life was 1987, when a woman and her 7-year-old son were caught in a sudden, brief explosion while walking near the summit with their tour group.

In recent years, Etna's eruptions have caused local authorities to close Catania airport and its airspace due to vast clouds of ash being released in the air.

In early April, a new crater opened on the volcano’s summit leading to an unusual display of 'smoke rings'.

Other volcanoes

Despite having been in a dormant state (or stato quiescente in Italian) for centuries, the following volcanoes are also considered active by Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology as they’ve erupted at least once in the past 10,000 years: Ischia, Vulcano, Lipari, Panarea, Colli Albani, Pantelleria, Marsili e Ferdinandea. 



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