Four million people in and around the Italian city of Naples on the shore of the Tyrrhenian Sea have always lived under a double threat of natural disaster. The one that immediately springs to most people’s mind is the huge volcano Vesuvius that looms over its eastern suburbs, for this was the source of the incandescent pyroclastic flow that overwhelmed Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 CE. Less familiar outside Italy is a cluster of elliptical volcanic features directly to the west of the city: Campi Flegrei or the Phlegraean Fields. In fact the cluster is part of a vast, dormant caldera, half of which lies beneath the sea centred on the ancient Roman port of Puteoli (modern Pozzuoli). This volcanic collapse structure is about 10 km across; about as large as Vesuvius. Campi Flegrei is famous for its sulfur-rich fumaroles including the mythical crater home of Vulcan the god of fire, Solfatara.
Between 1970 and 1984 the ground around Pozzuoli rose more than 2 metres, which may be evidence that the deep seated magma chamber is inflating. Fears that this might presage an eruption in the near future stems from a curious feature affecting archaeological remains, such as upright pillars in the harbour area of Pozzuoli. At many different levels the stonework is pockmarked by curious holes that are the fossil borings of marine molluscs: at some stage the feet of the pillars descended below sea level. Together with historic records since the Roman era these borings help to establish the local ups and downs of the surface over the last two millennia in considerable detail. From a high of 4 m above sea level when the pillars were erected 194 BCE they slowly subsided to reach sea level around 300 CE when Puteoli ceased to be an important harbour and 4 metres below that around 900 CE. For the last millennium they have slowly risen until in 1538 more than 4 metres of inflation took place very rapidly. That was immediately followed by a small eruption of about 0.02 km3 of magma at Mount Nuovo, to the northeast of another recent crater now occupied by a lake: hence the fear surrounding the uplift in 1970-84. Campi Flegrei has a history of eruptions going back 40 thousand years, including two in the ‘super volcano’ category of 200 and 40 km3 that blanketed vast areas in pyroclastic ash.
One tantalising aspect of the ground inflation and deflation is that each cycle lasts of the order of a thousand years. Another seems to be that magma breaks to the surface very rapidly after a long period of inflation, as if whatever was keeping the magma chamber in a metastable state failed in a brittle fashion. Tiziana Vanorio and Waruntorn Kanitpanyacharoen of Stanford and Chulalonkorn universities in the US and Thailand have come up with a possible reason for such gradual crustal warping in volcanic areas and long-delayed eruption, for which Campi Flegrei is a model case (in fact the oscillations there are unsurpassed). Such long-term bending of the crust suggests abnormally strong rock near the surface. The co-workers analysed borehole cores that penetrated to the depth of small shallow earthquakes – in the metamorphic basement of the area – and found that the zone above the seismically active layer is not only stronger than the basement, but closely resembles a construction material to which Roman architecture owes its longevity (Vanorio, T. & Kanitpanyacharoen, W. 2015. Rock physics of fibrous rocks akin to Roman concrete explains uplifts at Campi Flegrei Caldera. Science, v. 349, p. 617-621).
Roman masons discovered that by mixing young, loose volcanic ash with lime mortar (calcium hydroxide) produced a strong concrete when cured. Specifically, the invention of concrete took place at Pozzuoli itself, using volcanic ash from Campi Flegrei and the product was known as pozzolana. Young ash from an explosive volcano is mainly shards of anhydrous silicate glass, which quickly react with water and calcium hydroxide to produce fibres of hydrous calc-silicate minerals, almost as in conventional cement curing, but without the need for heating limestone and clay to very high temperatures. The strength of pozzolano enabled Roman architects to build the great dome of the Pantheon in Rome, still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. Moreover, the speed with which it sets by exothermic reactions enables its use below sea level. Vanorio and Kanitpanyacharoen found that the strong upper zone beneath Campi Flegrei is almost identical to pozzolano, and suggest that it formed as a result of calcium-rich hydrothermal fluids percolating through young pyroclastic rocks. The calcium derives from metamorphic basement rich in calc-silicate layers through which hot groundwater is driven as a result of heat from the underlying magma chamber. It seems the Campi Flegrei caldera has built its own containing dome. But that is perhaps a mixed blessing: the 1970-84 inflation seems now to be deflating and the flexible carapace may make using ground movements as means of predicting eruptions unreliable.