If you stand at the top at night and turn off your flashlight, all you can see are glittering diamondine specks in the dark. At that moment, you are floating, unattached, in an endless pool of ink. The inevitable rumblings of the blackened earth beneath your feet are ultimately a reminder that you remain on this planet. And when a jet of glowing molten rock shoots skyward and lights up the earth like a flare, you feel like you’re staring at a dragon.
For those looking to experience the raw, almost supernatural power of a volcano, you’d be hard pressed to find a better place than Stromboli, northwest of Italian Boot Point and well known as the Lighthouse of the Mediterranean.
Rising just 3,000 feet above the waves of the Tyrrhenian Sea, this seemingly tiny volcanic island is renowned for its almost continuous summit explosions. Most volcanoes spend much of their life in a state of rest, but Stromboli contradicts this trend. “It’s still 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 trains.
Stromboli is also home to a few hundred full-time residents. Their relationship with the volcano is largely cordial. Its regular explosive activity is confined to the top, and a slope called Sciara del Fuoco (“Stream of Fire”) safely carries overheated debris into the sea. The frequent booms that shake the windows have become barely perceptible in the background. , while its effervescence has proven to be very attractive to paying tourists.
But the volcano is capable of acts of total devastation. Rare but above all violent explosions have caused deaths both at the summit and on its slopes. This danger makes Stromboli a resplendent place punctuated by moments of terror. Gaia Squarci, a photographer and videographer who first visited the island at the age of 17, said there is always “a calm, with a tension underneath”.
Each has a unique relationship with this paradoxical landscape. Scientists approach Stromboli like detectives. They hope to understand how it works by investigating its various viscera, a task aided both by its hyperactivity and ease of access. “There aren’t that many volcanoes that you can climb to the top, you work all day, then you’re only an hour away from beer, pizza, great food,” said the Dr Ripepe.
Small explosions constantly shake the top of Stromboli. While this is a safe environment in which to work for the most part, scientists are well aware that the volcano is capable of setting off more powerful explosions. These explosions, called paroxysms, are considered a major threat. If they are powerful enough to dislodge part of the volcano, some can even trigger tsunamis.
Although the volcano has been relatively calm for the past half century, the past few years have seen a return to a violent form. In July 2019, a paroxysm killed a hiker and injured several others. The following month another shook the island, but luckily no one died that time. Authorities, fearing further climaxes, subsequently closed the summit to visitors.
Jacopo Crimi, originally from Milan, was often brought to the island as a child by his parents. Today he lives there, helping scientists present and share their work with their peers, clients and the general public. He describes living on Stromboli as a bit like being on one of the miniature planets of the universe of the “Little Prince”, the story of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry where the eponymous boy visits several lonely worlds.
Mr Crimi says residents get to know the volcano and its personality, as if it were a living being. “It’s weird. It’s like a person,” he said. “You really miss it when you leave here. You feel lost.
Travelers will always want to visit the island too, as the erupting volcanoes provide a spectacle like no other. “We love the danger in some ways. It makes us feel immortal, ”Mr. Crimi said. “It brings together fear and joy.”
The human presence makes volcanologists nervous. The volcano is almost three kilometers high, but only the highest part is above the water. “They don’t live at the foot of the volcano,” Dr Ripepe said. “They live at the top of the volcano”, right next to its magmatic jaw. No one on the island is far from danger.
The overarching goal of the science of volcanology is to detect the warning signs of an eruption, allowing anyone in danger to protect themselves. Volcanoes usually contract and convulse before an eruption, but some dangerous phenomena do not give noticeable fanfare. For example, a pressure cooker-like groundwater bomb exploded without warning on the Whakaari / White Island volcano in New Zealand on December 9, 2019, killing 22 visitors.
Stromboli’s eternal effervescence makes it a fantastic natural laboratory for testing attempts to predict eruptions. Could the island’s own explosions, which occur quite suddenly, be seen coming?
We know that many volcanoes swell when magma rises in them. This doesn’t always mean that a rash is imminent, but sometimes it is. Stromboli is no exception.
The devices that measure the changing shape of the volcano have been recording its metamorphosis for two decades. And scientists have noticed that Stromboli does not swell randomly, but every time the volcano is about to explode.
In this case, inflation seems to occur when gases dissolved in the ascending magma escape into a low-pressure environment inside the volcano’s shallow duct, the esophageal-shaped passage to the surface. Despite Stromboli’s erratic nature, “there is a rule in chaos,” said Dr Ripepe.
The scientists’ discovery was published in the journal Nature Communications in March, but an early warning system based on their data has been operational since October 2019. If the volcano swells in a way that indicates a climax is imminent, an automated alert 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 climax occurs. This may be enough to save the lives of many people, either from the climax itself or from any subsequent tsunami. But it is not a panacea. “If you are at the top, there is no way to survive,” said Dr Ripepe. Either the shock wave from the explosion will crush your internal organs, or the ash and hot gases will suffocate you. He and his colleagues are now hoping to find other forerunners who will give people hours to get to safety.
Deciphering the complex series of growls and jolts exhibited by volcanoes as an eruption approaches is rarely straightforward. But when efforts to identify the precursors of volcanic violence are successful, it can bring salvation.
Take the example of La Soufrière, a volcano on the Caribbean island of Saint-Vincent. It had erupted calmly 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 living in the shadow of the volcano on April 8. The next day, the first of a series of catastrophic explosions rocked La Soufrière. Thanks to this early warning and the exodus that followed, no life was lost due to the rage of the volcano.
No matter how much progress is made in predicting eruptions, Stromboli, like all volcanoes, remains capable of surprising anyone. “It’s humbling that we can get better and better at predicting patterns of behavior, but there will always be a high degree of unpredictability,” Ms. Squarci said.
According to Mr Crimi, many longtime residents of Stromboli, including those who depend on tourism for their income, do not want to engage with volcanologists as they are seen defying the island-wide illusion that the volcano can’t hurt.
But for some, knowing that the specter of death still exists is a thing of counterintuitive beauty. Scientists can try to figure out Stromboli, but nothing they do will change the actions of the volcano.
“The volcano wrote the chapters in the history of the island,” Ms. Squarci said – and he will also be the author of the future of the island.