A new "UNESCO - 1 Ocean" exploration mission has just been carried out in the Aeolian Islands, Italy, with the goal of improving our knowledge of underwater volcanoes and the risk of tsunamis in the Mediterranean. The mission has brought back exceptional images, close to the bowels of the Earth and the origins of life.
The Aeolian Islands archipelago in Italy is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its intense volcanic activity. On 13 May, the Stromboli volcano experienced another major explosion that generated a thick cloud of smoke and landslides that reached the sea.
While this surface eruption was highly visible, most of the world's volcanic activity is actually hidden from view. More than a million volcanoes are underwater, generating 80% of the world’s volcanic activity.
As part of the Decade for Ocean Science (2021-2030), coordinated by UNESCO, a "UNESCO - 1 Ocean" exploration mission led by photographer-explorer Alexis Rosenfeld conducted an underwater exploratory mission in early June not far from Stromboli, off the island of Panarea, to shed light on the activity of underwater volcanoes.
Diving into the heart of one of Europe's most important volcanic systems
The images shot by Alexis Rosenfeld and Italian filmmaker Roberto Rinaldi take us deep into the Panarea underwater crater and along the rim of the caldera. At a depth of only a few metres, permanent gas eruptions, coming directly from the volcano's magma chamber, escape from the bowels of the Earth to form impressive curtains of bubbles. Some areas release more than a million litres of gas a day.
Much deeper, more than seventy metres below the surface, an exceptional site has recently been discovered: The Smoking Land. It consists of a multitude of hydrothermal vents that expel acidic fluids at high temperatures.
"From the surface, you wouldn't suspect anything. Yet the underwater volcanoes of Panarea are one of the most striking landscapes I have ever seen. We are at the same time enveloped by the infinite silence of the ocean and in the middle of a Dante-esque spectacle of volcanic chimneys that spit out gases and burning fluids, a bit like being at the gates of hell. You realize that the Earth is alive." - Alexis Rosenfeld 1 Ocean-UNESCO Explorer, photographer, documentary film-maker.
A constant threat to coastal populations
These phenomena are monitored daily by the team of Professor Francesco Italiano, head of the Palermo section of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV), because they can represent a risk for the population.
In recent years, scientists have noted an "instability" in the behaviour of volcanoes that requires further research. They believe that a "major event" is possible.
"We estimate that, according to a natural cycle, there is a major explosion in this area every 70 years. The last one took place at the end of the 1930s. [In the event of an explosion] one of the risks is the formation of a tsunami. This is a phenomenon that moves at very high speed, at least 300 km/h. It could therefore hit the islands in a few minutes, which means that we have to react very quickly." - Francesco ItalianoHead of the Palermo section of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV).
A UNESCO Priority
UNESCO has long experience in this field, thanks to its Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC). Since the 1960s, it has coordinated the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre (PTWS). In 2005, it added three other systems: the CTWS in the Caribbean, the IOTWS for the Indian Ocean and the NEAMTWS for the Northeast Atlantic and the Mediterranean.
The UN has also developed a training programme for coastal populations. It has been successfully implemented in several regions of the world, such as South-East Asia, Oceania and the Caribbean, and is currently being deployed around the Mediterranean. UNESCO will announce its new global objective in this area at the United Nations Conference on the Oceans, to be held from 27 June to 1 July in Lisbon.