If you stand on the summit at night and turn off the flashlight, all you will see is diamond dots shimmering in the dark. At this moment you are floating unbound in an endless pool of ink. The inevitable rumble of the blackened earth beneath your feet will eventually remind you that you are staying on this planet. And when a beam of glowing molten rock shoots into the sky, lighting the land like a torch, it feels like you’re staring at a kite.
For those who want to experience the raw and almost supernatural power of a volcano, there is hardly a better place than Stromboli, northwest of the tip of the Italian boot and aptly known as the lighthouse of the Mediterranean.
The seemingly tiny volcanic island rises just 3,000 feet above the waves of the Tyrrhenian Sea and is famous for its near-continuous peak explosions. Most volcanoes spend much of their dormant lives, but Stromboli is bucking this trend. “It’s always active,” said Maurizio Ripepe, a geophysicist at the University of Florence in Italy. “I always say it’s the most reliable thing in Italy. It’s not like the trains. “
Several hundred full-time residents also live in Stromboli. Your relationship with the volcano is largely cordial. Its regular explosive activity is limited to the summit, and a slope called Sciara del Fuoco (“Stream of Fire”) harmlessly drains overheated debris into the sea. The frequent window rattle brackets have become barely noticeable background noise, while the flare has proven extremely attractive to paying tourists.
But the volcano is capable of complete devastation. Rare but particularly violent explosions have killed people both on the summit and on its slopes. This danger makes Stromboli a splendid place full of moments of terror. Gaia Squarci, a photographer and videographer who first visited the island when she was 17, said there is always “a calm with a tension underneath”.
Everyone has a unique relationship with this paradoxical landscape. Scientists approach Stromboli as detectives. They hope to understand how it works by examining its various viscera, a task aided by both its hyperactivity and its easy accessibility. “There aren’t that many volcanoes that you can climb to the top, you work all day and then you are only an hour away from beer, pizza and good food,” said Dr. Ripepe.
Small explosions constantly shake Stromboli’s summit. Although it is largely a safe work environment, scientists are aware that the volcano is capable of causing more powerful explosions. These explosions, known as paroxysms, are considered a major threat. If they’re strong enough to remove part of the volcano, some can even trigger tsunamis.
Although the volcano has been relatively calm for the past half century, it has returned to a violent form in recent years. In July 2019, a seizure killed one hiker and injured several others. The next month another rocked the island, but luckily no one died this time. The authorities feared further attacks and then closed the summit for visitors.
Jacopo Crimi, originally from Milan, was often brought to the island by his parents as a child. Today he lives there and helps scientists present their work and share it with peers, customers and the public. He describes life on Stromboli as a bit like being on one of the miniature planets in the universe of “The Little Prince”, the story of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, in which the boy of the same name visits a series of lonely worlds.
Mr Crimi says the residents get to know the volcano and its personality as if it were a living being. “It’s weird. It’s like being with a person,” he said. “You really miss leaving here. You feel lost.”
Travelers will always want to visit the island, because erupting volcanoes offer an incomparable spectacle. “We love danger in a way. It makes us feel immortal, ”said Crimi. “It brings fear and joy together.”
The human presence makes volcanologists nervous. The volcano is nearly two miles high, but only the uppermost part is above water. “You don’t live at the foot of the volcano,” said Dr. Ripepe. “They live on top of the volcano”, right next to its magmatic throat. Nobody on the island is far from harm.
The overall goal of the science of volcanology is to identify warning signs of an eruption so that anyone in danger can protect themselves. Volcanoes usually twitch and twitch before an eruption, but some dangerous phenomena show no discernible fanfare. For example, on December 9, 2019, a pressure cooker-like bomb made of underground water exploded on the New Zealand volcano Whakaari / White Island without warning, killing 22 visitors.
Stromboli’s eternal effervescence makes it a fantastic natural laboratory for testing experiments to predict eruptions. Could the island’s own explosions, which happen quite suddenly, be coming?
It is known that many volcanoes inflate when magma rises into them. This doesn’t always mean an outbreak is imminent, but sometimes it does. Stromboli is no exception.
Devices that measure the volcano’s changing shape have been recording its metamorphosis for two decades. And scientists have noticed that Stromboli doesn’t inflate randomly, but every time the volcano explodes.
In this case, the inflation appears to occur when the gases dissolved in the ascending magma escape into a lower pressure environment in the flat conduit of the volcano, the esophageal passage to the surface. Despite Stromboli’s unpredictability, “there is a rule in chaos,” said Dr. Ripepe.
The scientists’ discovery was published in March in the journal Nature Communications. However, an early warning system based on their data has been in operation since October 2019. If the volcano inflates in a way that indicates a seizure, an automatic warning is sent to civil authorities and volcanologists, who then activate a series of sirens.
From the moment the signal is detected, everyone has up to 10 minutes to react before the seizure occurs. This may be enough to save many people’s lives, either from the seizure itself or from a subsequent tsunami. But it’s not a panacea. “When you are on the summit, there is no way you can survive,” said Dr. Ripepe. Either the shock wave from the explosion will crush your internal organs, or the hot ash and gas will suffocate you. He and his colleagues now hope to find other precursors who will give people hours to get to safety.
Deciphering the complex series of murmurs and twitches that volcanoes display in the run-up to an eruption is seldom easy. But if efforts to identify precursors to Vulcan violence are successful, it can bring salvation.
Take La Soufrière, a volcano on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, as an example. It had broken out quietly and harmlessly since last December. But suspicious seismic activity in late March and early April was interpreted by scientists as a sign that something explosive was on the way. They convinced the government to order the evacuation of tens of thousands of people in the shadow of the volcano on April 8th. The very next day, the first of a series of catastrophic explosions struck La Soufrière. Thanks to that early warning and the subsequent Exodus, no lives were lost to the volcano’s fury.
Regardless of the progress made in predicting eruptions, Stromboli, like all volcanoes, can surprise everyone. “It is humbling that we can always better predict behavior patterns, but there will always be a high level of unpredictability,” Ms. Squarci said.
According to Crimi, many of Stromboli’s longtime residents, including those who rely on tourism for their income, do not want to contact volcanologists as they question the island-wide illusion that the volcano cannot cause harm.
But for some, knowing that the specter of death always exists is a matter of counterintuitive beauty. Scientists can try to understand Stromboli, but nothing they will do will change the volcano’s actions.
“The volcano wrote the chapters of the island’s history,” said Ms. Squarci – and he will also be the author of the island’s future.