Will there be a super-eruption in the Mediterranean soon? While it remains challenging to answer this question definitively, a recent study reveals a cyclical pattern, occurring approximately every 10,000 to 15,000 years.
The Mediterranean region, characterized by destructive earthquakes, eruptions, and tsunamis, is highly active geodynamically. Under its blue waters, a significant tectonic battle unfolds among several large plates. Etna in Sicily, emblematic of this activity, stands as one of the world’s most active volcanoes. Despite its impressively repetitive eruptions, it poses no major threat to populations. In contrast, another volcano in the Bay of Naples, with recent seismic activity, raises concerns about a potential awakening.
4 Major Eruptions in 50,000 Years, Including One That May Have Contributed to the Disappearance of the Neanderthals
The Phlegraean Fields represent a supervolcano with a massive caldera, showcasing the intensity of past eruptions. Another dormant giant in the region, hidden beneath the waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea, is the Marsili, a submarine volcano part of the Aeolian arc. While its current activity is moderate, recent signs have alarmed experts. A significant eruption could have major repercussions on the densely populated Italian coast. However, estimating the risk remains challenging due to a lack of data on the eruptive history of this volcano.
A team of scientists conducted a thorough survey of the seabed in the Marsili basin to trace evidence of past volcanic activity. Examining sediments deposited over the last 50,000 years, they identified four major volcanic deposits, each indicating a catastrophic event. Despite their substantial thickness, ranging from 10 to 25 meters, these layers of volcanic debris do not appear to be associated with Marsili eruptions. Through drilling, the scientists dated these deposits, revealing the source of these major volcanic events.
Unsurprisingly, the data pointed to the Phlegraean Fields supervolcano. The deposits were dated at 36 ± 6 ka, 32 ± 7 ka, 18 ± 3 ka, and 8 ± 1 ka (ka meaning “kilo-years,” or 1,000 years). Considering the margin of error, it appears that the two oldest deposits could be linked to the super-eruption approximately 39,800 years ago, one of the most violent events Earth has experienced. This event may have contributed to the onset of a volcanic winter, potentially impacting the extinction of Neanderthals.
The third deposit corresponds to the eruption 14,900 years ago, resulting in significant volumes of volcanic material known today as the Neapolitan Yellow Tuff. The last deposit, attributed to the same volcano, stems from a smaller eruption.
Published in the Geology journal, these findings indicate a recurrence of catastrophic eruptions every 10,000 to 15,000 years in the Mediterranean region. While these data enhance our understanding of the history and functioning of Tyrrhenian Sea volcanoes, the apparent recurrence does not provide certainty about when the next super-eruption from the Phlegraean Fields might occur. Volcanoes remain unpredictable, and only heightened monitoring can offer some anticipation of their reawakening.
Featured Image: February 2021 eruption seen from Naval Air Station Sigonella. Official U.S. Navy Page