The whole of Yellowstone National Park is basically the gigantic caldera of a super-volcano, the kind that can mess up the whole world’s climate when it blows. The Yellowstone one is pretty regular about how often it does blow, too, and at the moment it’s about 6,000 years overdue for its next ka-boom. One of the postulates — the “big lies” that an author is permitted to tell to set up his story — in my latest novel, All the Lives He Led is that sometime before the story gets going Yellowstone did blow sky-high, covering much of the country with volcanic ash and dust and thus converting the U.S.A. from the richest country in the world to something with approximately the Gross National Product of Liechtenstein.
This means our hero can’t make a decent living in America. Therefore he goes to Italy, where he gets a job in the theme park the Italians have made out of the 2,000-year-old ruins of Pompeii.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, as it happens, during World War II I was stationed in Italy for a time with the U. S. Army Air Force, first with a B24 group on the Adriatic side of the peninsula, then with AAF/MTO (translation: Army Air Force, Mediterranean Theater of Operations headquarters) in Caserta, near Naples. What I am getting at, in my perhaps unfortunately highly discursive way, is that for a long time I have been interested in (a) supervolcanos like Yellowstone and (b) the region of the Italian coast around Naples.
And I have — alarmingly — recently discovered that those two areas of interest have become one.
You see, the whole territory around Naples is what the old Romans called the Campi Flegrei (meaning “the burning fields”), and Lake Avernus was described by Virgil, in his Aeneid, as the entrance to Hell. Modern observers have not confirmed that identification, but what they have established is that the lake is actually the water-filled crater of a dormant, but not necessarily dead, volcano.
Like Yellowstone, the area is marked by fumaroles (vents of steam), pots of boiling mud and, most disconcertingly, irregular raising and lowering of ground level in some places by as much as eleven feet, which has not been good for some of the constructions on those sites; a hospital and many, many homes have been destroyed. There is a big difference between the Yellowstone caldera and the one for the Phlegrean Fields, though. Most of the Phlegrean territory is underwater, stretching from the famous Isle of Capri to the less celebrated island of Ischia and including much of my dear unkempt city of Naples. (Another difference is population. In winter, at least, Yellowstone is inhabited largely by bears, while the Phlegrean Fields area is home to four million human beings,)
So how dangerous is the situation? Well, no one exactly knows. It would take quite a lot of drilling down into the worrisome ground to get the evidence to predict just what is going to happen there.
That drilling seemed about to start a while ago, because Giuseppe De Natale, the search director for Italy’s National Observatory for Geophysics and Volcanology, was prepared to get it started with a $14 million course of drilling. That didn’t happen, though Critics reminded Naples Mayor Rosa Russo Iervolino of what happened in Indonesia in 2006 when a mud volcano erupted after similar drilling was done, killing a few people and rendering tens of thousands homeless. Mayor Iervolino took no chances. She stopped all drilling until somebody could prove to her that it was safe.
(By the way, people who have been to Naples and seen Mt. Vesuvius puffing its ominous little trail of steam on the horizon may wonder what part this other volcano plays in the Phlegrean Fields scenario. The answer is none at all. Vesuvius, which destroyed three little cities in one 48-hour rampage back in 79 A.D., is just too trivial to worry about when considering the threat posed by the Phlegrean Fields.)