The mysterious world of undersea volcanoes and lava off the coast of Italy

Hidden beneath the waves of the Tyrrhenian Sea near southwestern Italy is a newly discovered volcanic ensemble, dotted with geothermal chimneys and flat-topped subterranean mountains.

Geographically, this population is still relatively new to both science and the planet; it was only formed about 780,000 years ago. Fabrizio Pepe, lead scientist and geophysicist at the University of Palermo in Italy, said: ‘Scientists would not be surprised to find volcanic populations in areas where there is an abundance of volcanoes. Active volcanoes such as Mount Vesuvius and Mount Etna. But this new population is very unusual because it was created in a very rare structure.”

“This is a very complicated area,” says Pepe.

The mysterious world of undersea volcanoes and lava off the coast of Italy
The volcanic complex was discovered just under the Tyrrhenian Sea off the coast of Italy.

The Western Mediterranean is an area of continuous seismic activity caused by the collision of three tectonic plates: the African, Eurasian and Anatolian tectonic plates. Making matters more complicated is that a small piece of the Adriatic-Ionian tectonic plate crust broke off the African plate more than 65 million years ago and is now being pushed under the larger Eurasian plate during the eruption. subduction name. Mount Vesuvius is one of the volcanoes created by this subduction process.

Previously, scientists discovered a series of seafloor volcanic arcs created by this tectonic instability, starting near the Sardinian coast with the arcs getting younger and younger to the south. and east.

These arcs look like an arrow pointing straight out to the east, instructing Pepe and his colleagues to continue their search for a new, younger arc off the Calabrian Sea – ” big toe” of the Italian “boots” – 15km away.

There, based on seafloor maps, seismic data and magnetic variations, the researchers found an area of lava, volcanoes and hydrothermal chimneys 2,000 square meters wide; Undersea vents allow hot minerals to spew out and form chimney-like structures. They named this new area the Diamante-Enotrio-Ovidio Invasive Volcanic Complex, after the three flat-topped underground mountains in this sea.

The faults are what allow magma to rise to the surface of the Diamante-Enotrio-Ovidio complex, creating undersea lava and volcanoes. These volcanic peaks are currently in plateau form because when the sea level dropped, they jutted out into the ocean and eroded into their present flat shape.

In a July 6 report in the journal Tectonics, the researchers show that although the volcanic complex is no longer active, there are still minor intrusions of lava flows in some parts of the bottom. sea.

However, the area could become active again in the future, and in fact, volcanic activity is still continuing in the eastern part of the Tyrrhenian Sea, Pepe added. Researchers are still working on building a volcanic risk map of the complex so that it can be easier to grasp whether it poses a danger to people and property. They are also studying the possibility of exploiting the complex to generate geothermal energy.