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Marsili seamount: tsunami threat for Southern Italy? 30 March 2010

Posted by admin in Italy, Marsili, natural hazards, submarine volcanism, volcano monitoring, volcanoes.
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Mount Marsili is a 3000-metre high seamount beneath the Tyrrhenian Sea, 150 km south-west of Naples. Marsili is active and recent research has indicated signs of restlessness (see this 2006 paper in PDF), although the risks of any dangerous eruptive activity are very slight). In an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, the director of the Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia (INGV), Dr Enzo Boschi, has reminded everyone that Marsili is active and that there is a potential threat of an eruption/collapse generating a tsunami that would threaten Southern Italy:

It could happen tomorrow. The latest research says that the volcanic edifice is not strong and its walls are fragile. Furthermore we have measured the magma chamber that has formed in recent years and it is of large dimensions. All this tells us that the volcano is active and could erupt unexpectedly.

According to the article, observations indicate that hydrothermal emissions from vents around Marsili have become more intense recently, and evidence of landslides discovered by the oceanographic research vessel Urania last February ‘indicate an instability impossible to ignore’. Dr Boschi warns that a flank collapse at Marsili ‘would displace millions of cubic metres of material, which would be capable of generating a wave of great power’. Marsili is currently unmonitored, observes Dr Boschi: ‘A network of seismometers should be installed around the edifice, connected on land to a volcano monitoring centre. But this is beyond the budget’.

And it seems reasonable to suggest that the budget is what this article is actually all about. Despite the new attention this story will bring to Marsili as it gets cut-and-pasted around the web, there is nothing substantially new here, as Aldo Piombino notes in a very comprehensive post published on his blog today. No new activity lies behind this report, and nor has the potential threat, such as it is, changed in any way. The novelty, he observes, is in public attention being drawn to the need to monitor Marsili, which has been invisible in every sense as far as the Italian public is concerned.

Undersea volcanoes tend to be out of sight and out of mind. Writing in 2008, Aldo Piombino called Marsili ‘one of the least-known of the huge volcanic systems of Europe’, and argued that more attention must be paid to this active and potentially very destructive underwater giant:

It is statistically very unlikely that in our lifetimes we will see an explosion of Marsili, and even less likely that we will see a tsunami caused by a landslide on its flanks, but it is to be hoped that it will be placed under close seismic and geochemical surveillance, as with other active Italian volcanoes. I believe that it is necessary for civil protection and for science that one of the largest volcanoes in Europe is better understood.

Boris Behncke of the INGV discussed Marsili’s activity in the course of his Q&A on Dr Klemetti’s Eruptions blog last year, but also remarked that monitoring Marsili was not a priority for the INGV [UPDATE: in fact that is not what Boris meant. He meant that Marsili has not been a priority for the Italian authorities, Civil Defence, and the Italian public, rather than the INGV – see his comment at Eruptions]. Dr Boschi’s comments today would seem to indicate that that has changed. Aldo Piombino observes today that the technology is available within the INGV to monitor Marsili directly from the seabed using new broadband seismometers transmitting to land-based monitoring stations, and supports Dr Boschi’s call for full monitoring of the volcano. But that cannot happen without money, which is more likely to be forthcoming if the potential (and real but, it must be emphasized again, very remote) dangers of a tsunami-generating collapse at Marsili are stressed – hence the Corriere della Sera article.

So, it seems that a push has begun within Italian volcanology to get Marsili wired up for continuous and comprehensive monitoring. Let us hope it succeeds.

UPDATE 30 March 2010: Dr Erik Klemetti has more on Marsili at Eruptions, and Boris Behncke, himself of the INGV (Dr Boschi is Boris’s boss), has an illuminating comment here.

Torna a far paura il vulcano sommerso nel TirrenoCorriere della Sera, 29 March 2010
Undersea volcano threatens southern Italy: report – AFP, 29 March 2010
Il Monte Marsili, un gigantesco vulcano nascosto dalle profondità del Mar Tirreno – scienzeedintorni, 4 April 2008
Finalmente alla ribalta il più grande fra i vulcani sommersi nel Tirreno, il Monte Marsili – scienzeedintorni, 29 March 2010

The Volcanism Blog


1. aldo piombino - 30 March 2010

He, Ralph. the main difference between the two surveys is that in the second, wich is 2009 in time, the investigation has been more accurate because of the use of a new broadband seismometer specifically designed for operating on a sea bottom and that a large magma chamber has been detected.
In 2008 I wrote that no one in Italy but geologist (or other people interested in) knew the occurrence of this giant volcano and that in the school books it never appears.
However, I don’t understand wyhy only yesterday Boschi have done the warning. what is changed from november when Boris Behncke answered me that Marsili was not a priority?

2. Boris Behncke - 30 March 2010

I guess that Marsili has been as much a priority for the INGV as all potentially active volcanoes and potentially seismically active areas in Italy – that is, HIGH. Probaly I have expressed myself not clearly enough in my November 2009 comment, and should have rather said that it was not a high priority for those who give funding to the INGV, foremost the Italian Civil Defense. I am certain that already for scientific curiosity there would be colleagues at the INGV very much willing to cast more than an occasional eye on Marsili. So the thing is that apparently only alarmist tones may reach the public, and the moment is shortly after the strong mediatic impact of the Haiti and Chile earthquakes and the – small and harmless but spectacular and very present on the internet – eruption in Iceland. So this is a moment of particular public receptivity, and Boschi may have chosen this moment for such reasons, besides an increased effort in public outreach that is being launched at the INGV in these days.

3. admin - 30 March 2010

Thanks for your comments, Aldo and Boris. I had been wondering whether there was some internal Italian political context causing Boschi to make these comments at this specific time.

By the way, speaking of ‘alarmist tones’, Fox News has picked up the story and is doing its usual dumb things with it: http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2010/03/29/undersea-volcano-threatens-italy/

4. aldo piombino - 30 March 2010

this is Italy.
have you understood why we are considered the country of the toys and not a “normal” place??????

5. Salvatore - 30 March 2010

Hi: Here’s a couple more links from the thread at Eruptions that are useful to this discussion.

From Aldo, about Italy and why Boschi spoke out now: http://scienceblogs.com/eruptions/2010/03/submarine_volcano_off_italy_ma.php#comment-2390318

From Boris, a complete translation of hte orignal Italian article: http://scienceblogs.com/eruptions/2010/03/submarine_volcano_off_italy_ma.php#comment-2390327

Thanks to all who have been covering this!

6. Tay - 30 March 2010

The most important question is will adequate monitoring assist in saving lives and warning people of impending dangers of volcanic ash drift and other side effects?

I always find it interesting when people think just because a volcano hasn’t erupted in years that it won’t. If it’s not a completely dead volcano wouldn’t it be best to put some time into monitoring it?

It should be interesting to see what happens with this particular volcano and how the push for continuous monitoring goes. Very interesting post.

7. Passerby - 31 March 2010

In response to Boris’ mention of regional tsunami monitoring, I posted the following (and more) at Eruptions today.

Tsunami warning system in the Mediterranean:

March 24, 2010. Harris Corporation’s Maritime Technology and Services to Aid New Tsunami Warning System in Mediterranean Sea.


‘This system will consist of an array of seismometers and very sensitive pressure sensors installed on several hundred kilometers of seafloor and connected to a Harris OceanNet™ buoy moored about 80 kilometers off the southern coast of Cyprus. The buoy is one element of the Offshore Communications Backbone (OCB) project that Harris is developing with CSnet. OCB is a modular, expandable system of sea floor equipment, power, communications and services for long-term, deep-ocean observation.’

INGV may be able to influence project officials on the proposed placement of one or more sets of Mediterranean OCB sensors such that they afford the volcanologists with provisional capacity for risk assessment of the sea mount belt, until such time that funds are available for dedicated study later on.

In my preceding comment, I also suggested a rationale for tagging along on a global-scale submarine volcano monitoring effort constructed for another purpose.

8. admin - 31 March 2010

Thanks for that, passerby. The discussion thread attached to Erik’s post on Marsili at Eruptions is worth reading in full:


9. Passerby - 31 March 2010

Apparently Harris has installed and been operating a small pressure sensor – communications buoy system in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea since 2004, perhaps as a demonstration system, with an eye towards global contract expansion in underserved marine basins.


Being curious that INGV didn’t appear to be an integral partner in the planned tsunami monitoring system development, I did some digging. Not surprisingly, the technology appears to be a spin-off of offshore exploration and drilling platform pressure sensing and communications systems. I presume there are also national security interests beyond natural disaster preparedness, functioning an invisible command layer.

10. Passerby - 31 March 2010

Background info:

Initial scoping meeting, UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural, 2005. Organization’s (UNESCO) Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC). Impetus was the Dec 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami event.

‘Participants identified key technical needs for the system and adopted an action plan for 2006-2007 focusing on enhancing capabilities for multiple risk assessment, improving warning efficiency based on seisomological, geophysical and sea-level information, and increasing mitigation through coastal planning and public awareness. ‘

News release.
UN tsunami early warning systems extended to Mediterranean, Northeast Atlantic. 11-25-2005.

International organization name:
The Intergovernmental Coordination Group for the Tsunami Early Warning and Mitigation System in the North-eastern Atlantic, the Mediterranean and connected seas (ICG/NEAMTWS) and website

Jump forward to then IOC Chairman’s (Stefano Tinti) meeting notes, 2006:

Major geological disturbance source considered: earthquakes. Landslides considered to be generator of small, local tsunami, volcanoes not considered to be a significant wave generator, although the director notes that they have in the past.

Current chairman: François Schindelé (France, Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique – CEA), term 2010-2011

INGV *is* represented in seismic monitoring workgroup.

Working Group 2 – Seismic and Geophysical Measurements – Co-chairs: Giulio Selvaggi (INGV, Italy) and Winfried Hanka (GFZ, Germany)

Probably should also coordinate with Tinti, if the volcano monitoring group (UF Geodynamics) is going to get a minimum of monitoring coverage for targeted seamounts that are contiguous with large onshore volcanic centers.

Working Group 4 – Public Awareness, Preparedness and Mitigation – Co-chairs: Russell Arthurton (Coastal Geoscience, UK) and Stefano Tinti (University of Bologna, Italy)

Maybe INGV could contribute to the cost of a couple of sensor pods and cabling, to be integrated into the planned network.

11. sm - 31 March 2010

Looks like there is no risk of explosions but rather gravitational collapses

Caratori Tontini, F., Cocchi, L., Muccini, F., Carmisciano, C., Marani, M., Bonatti, E., Ligi, M., Boschi, E. (2010), Potential-field modeling of collapse-prone submarine volcanoes in the Southern Tyrrhenian Sea (Italy), Geophysical Research Letters, 37, L03305, doi:10.1029/2009GL041757

12. mas - 25 June 2010

thanks for the info

Greetings from the south

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