The Phlegraean Fields Deep Drilling Project: interview with Prof. G. Mastrolorenzo
Bagnoli - Campi Flegrei
Phlegraean Fields Deep Drilling Project: interview with
Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo" by MalKo
has recently been apprehensive discussion of the scientific proposal for the
Deep Drilling Project.This is a probe
which would be pushed to four kilometres depthin the area of the ex-Italsider of Bagnoli.It would begin with a “pilot” well of five
hundred metres that would then advance lower down at a certain slant.
important scientific journals and numerous scientists have warned against
drilling in a caldera that forms part of an active volcanic area since it could
cause eruptions and earthquakes.On the
other hand, an equal number of prestigious scientists from the national and
international scientific world believe that the drilling would not set off any
reactions and on the contrary could result in the discovery of new elements
useful for understanding eruptive dynamics and the phenomenon of bradisism
typical of the area.Considering that
the densely populated area is located in and around the city of Naples, there
are fears that another eruption would add immeasurably to the already
innumerable problems that beset the city.
uninitiated obviously ask themselves what dynamics the drilling could trigger
off. None of the scientific articles we
have gone through talk about the scientific and technical details at the basis
of the fears but leap immediately to the conclusions: alarm yes or no?!
think that the problem is considerably more complex than just the pricking of a
balloon… and could perhaps be similar to a B.L.E.V.E. (Boiling Liquid Expanding
Vapor Explosion), a phenomenon known above all to firemen, because of the high
accident rate in industry and transport.This type of explosion takes place in confined spaces containing
superheated liquids.The substance
passes so rapidly to a vapor state by means of the reduction in pressure caused
by the physical breakdown of the casing, that it sets off a shock wave.We also know, however, that the reaching of
critical pressure and temperature in many substances such as water brings the
entire mass to a state of total vapor at enormous temperatures.For other thermodynamic concepts, however, it
should be remembered that perforating the cylinder (of an engine) with a hole
of a tiny section would not automatically cause a hiss in the jet equal to the
maximum pressure created in the cylinder itself as an effect of the explosion
of the combustible.There, however, the
pressures at play are cyclical.
Professor Mastrolorenzo, this story of the drilling of the Phlegaean Fields is extremely complex, above all regarding the alarm over the risk of explosion…
The physics of gas or vapor explosions in volcanic areas (gas and steam-blast eruptions) is amply covered in the scientific literature. Simple calculations of the energy balance lead to worrying conclusions about the high energy in play and the unpredictability of systems such as the geothermic system in the Phlegraean Fields which is highly unhomogeneous in petrographic and chemical-physical terms, both horizontally and vertically and explored only indirectly by means of indirect investigation. Thus the behavior of the system, in the case of the application of an external disturbance such as drilling, is intrinsically unpredictable. There is a simplistic tendency to retain that there is always a proportion between the energy applied to a system and the modifications observed: but it is not always so. In certain systems, and the drilling may belong to this category, small stresses can produce enormous effects. In volcanology and geophysics, one of the problems of greatest interest is the propagation of the fracturation processes in relation to mechanical and thermal applied stress. In the case of volcanoes, there is still no universally valid theory that explains how an eruption begins, but undoubtedly the triggering off of the fracturing of the crust surface represents the first stage in the rising of the magma towards the surface. In the past I discussed the problem of thermal fluid dynamics in the Phlegraean Fields and I pointed out the danger of fluids in critical or super critical conditions in porous rock that could potentially trigger freatic explosions or explosive eruptions. Such risks should obviously not be undervalued.
Given that the project is international, why the Phlegraean Fields?
The Phlegraean Fields were proposed several years ago by Dr Giuseppe De Natale of the INGV as it is an active volcanic area of particular scientific interest due to its significant danger as well as well as being potentially suitable for the installation of geothermal power stations. The project discussed within the ICDP of 2009 was approved with partial financing from the INGV. The beginning of the drilling, postponed serveral times, was planned for last October but was suspended after the alarm launched at an international level about the risks connected to deep drilling in a highly densely populated area at high seismic and volcanic risk. The Mayor of Naples, Rosa Russo Iervolino ordered the suspension of the project and sent a request to the Department of Civil Protection for an evaluation of the danger related to the experiment. Last October, at a meeting in Rome the Department approved further investigation into its safety by a commission of experts before authorisation for the drilling could be released. Since then, all activity has ceased.
Was the area of Bagnoli chosen because of its available space?
The choice of the area of Bagnoli as the operative seat for the deep drilling project was proposed early on. The area falls within the industrial perimeter of the ex ILVA plant which is at present being reclaimed by theBagnoli futura consortium. Geologically, it lies on the south-eastern border of the Phlegraean caldera delimited by the hill of Posillipo.
Although the project is international there are also international alarms about a possible resumption of eruptions and earthquakes set off by the deep drilling…
The alarm launched by researchers in various international scientific journals, the Italian and foreign press and in parliamentary questions concerns the seismic and volcanic risks that the drilling operation could create when the drills go through the hydrothermal system at very high temperatures and pressures. The risk of triggering eruptions in the event of crossing through superficial magmatic reservoirs has also been pointed out and recent research has theorised the possible injection of magma at shallow depths during recent bradisism crises. Another risk of drilling could derive from polluting agents, leftover or reworked, that have been lying in the subsoil since the steel and eternit plants of Bagnoli were closed twenty years ago. There has also been substantial criticism over the construction of industrial plants for the exploitation of geothermal energy in an area whose urban development plan is based on research, culture and recreation.
The director of the project, Dr Giuseppe De Naple, guarantees that there will be no danger because the project will proceed in phases. Is this procedure a real guarantee?
The situation has proven to be very complex because of the coexistence of scientific, management and administrative problems. Although, according to those responsible for the project, the risks are minor, an evaluation carried out by independent scientific authorities has been held to be indispensable. But it has also been emphasised that the Department of Civil Protection consulted by the Mayor of Naples, could not carry out its role of privileged interlocutor given that by statute it makes use of the consultancy of the INGV which is the board that has proposed the project. Infact, the administrative excursus on the deep drilling plan highlighted the complexities involved in relation to the assumption of responsability in the case of scientific projects or other types of intervention in areas where the population is at risk. In reality, any deep drilling presents a certain level of risk, since it passes through systems of extremely high energy at pressures that can reach thousands of atmospheres along with temperature of hundreds of degrees as well as the presence of fluids that can also be magmatic and whose behavior is highly unpredictable. On this subject, it is enough to recall the recent ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico where the undervaluation of risk had serious consequences arising from the unstoppable flow of oil from the sea bed causing massive damage to the marine and coastal environments which were scourged by the oil slicks. The accident was caused by the inadequate technology used which probably resulted in a superficial evaluation of the risks, despite the drilling being carried out by one of the largest international industrial giants in the field. Nevertheless, provided that there is an adequate evaluation of the risks and benefits that must be understood and accepted by the community, deep drilling can be justified as a source of further scientific information if this is not available by other means. In reality, deep drilling in the Phlegaean Fields has been carried out since the fascist period to a depth of 3200 metres by the AGIP company. As has been pointed by some of the researchers most critical of the drilling project in Bagnoli, this precedent renders the present project uninnovative and superfluous to any further investigation, whether related to scientific aims or the exploitation of geothermal energy. Indeed, during the AGIP campaign imminent risks caused the rapid closure of the wells and interest in the potential for the exploitation of geothermal energy faded due to the analyses showing the subterranean fluids to be too saline. In compensation, however, detailed information about the geological characteristics of the subsoil was obtained by means of the probing. It is evident that times have changed together with the sensitivity relating to natural and man-made risks. Scientists, the authorities and the population at large have by now an awareness of their right to security and it is therefore not possible to operate in a territory without giving sufficient information about the risks deriving from a particular activity even if this affects research. The fundamental problem now in the risk management of the Phlegraean Fields is the lack of an emergency plan. It is clear that the Civil Protection or any other authority, in the absence of any preventive evaluation of possible events and therefore of emergency plans for seismic, volcanic or environmental risk, would not be able to approve an operation presenting such risks. At the present, there is only a risk plan concerning volcanic eruption; but despite being announced twenty years ago it is still being studied by the national commission appointed by the Department of Civil Protection. I have urged on numerous occasions, without response, that the emergency plan be made public together with the studies on the drilling project in Bagnoli in the wake of recent alarms. There is high risk in the area of the Phlegraean Fields, as shown in our maps of volcanological danger that delineate the various possible eruptive scenarios. These maps should be the basis for the drawing up of an emergency plan.
(As always, our thanks to Professor Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo for his kind collaboration on matters of scientific interest that are not only complex but very relevant today)
In concluding this article, we would like to add a couple of points: first of all we are well aware that a degree of risk is always inherent in man’s activities. However, if we take for example the conquest of space, it began with the launch of teleguided missiles, followed by rockets carrying monkeys and dogs and finally man (human life) which is the highest form of life to be protected. What do we mean by this: that where unknowns fill important spaces that we need to protect, caution should be the rule of our modus operandi.Whoever is moderately familiar with problems of security knows that an operation of this kind could lead to situations if not of alarm, of pre-alarm. In other words, it could be necessary to activate dispositions in the emergency plan without an emergency appearing in its maximum form in energy terms as we know that unknowns do exist. This might simply be a precautionary measure, given that the perforation of a vapor sack could produce a loud boom or a bright fumarole which though probably innocuous could panic an already deeply worried population. Obviously, this is just an example to help us understand the situation, even if drilling technology is by now highly sophisticated. Deep drilling in the area of the Phlegraean caldera, which will certainly be furiously debated in the near future, should be approached in the spirit of prevention given that prediction is not possible. Prevention entails techniques to mitigate risk, moderating the danger or the value of exposure (the inhabitants) or both. In this case the minimisation of the danger would consist in employing recognitive and drilling techniques capable of choosing a path and containing the maximum theoretical pressures, and if necessary of remedying the situation. It is more difficult, however, to predict the fracturation of the crust deep down. In other words the experiment would have to be able to back out in useful terms if the results should become increasingly discouraging. Just to clarify certain concepts, it is enough to think that industries at risk are obliged to produce an emergency plan inside and outside the plant including the procedures to spread the alarm. If we remember well, the drilling activities are regulated by the directives relating to the safety and health of workers in the industries that extract by drilling according to the dictates of D.M. 25 novembre n°624, actuated in the directive 92/91/CEE, published in the Gazzetta Ufficiale 14 dicembre 1996. These dispositions offer an excellent departure point for understanding the problems. In the last analysis, scientific research should not be stopped, but the risks must always be measured with the available alternatives. To explore a caldera is of great importance but the Phlegraean caldera should be taken into consideration only if there are no other calderas in the world located in deserts or other areas of low density population. Infact, by lowering the exposure value, the risk immediately re-enters within acceptable parameters.
Translation by Lisa Norall
(In the figures below the two danger maps drawn up for the Phlegraean Fields by Professor G. Mastrolorenzo and collaborators)
The danger map relative to the dynamical overpressure represents the pressure exerted by a burning cloud on the unity of the surface. Damage relevant to the structure begins at values above 5 kPa while the value of demolition goes from 10 kPa to 25 kPa depending on the building typology.
Other than the risk connected to pressure is the great danger associated with the high temperature of the clouds (up to 600°C) which they can maintain even at distances greater than 15 kilometres from the eruptive centre.
The map on the left shows the danger relative to the fallout, that is to say the deposits that fall back down. It is evident that for such a type of phenomenon the entire city of Naples would be exposed to a very high risk value.
Both the maps are the result of the combinations of all the events possible obtained by the numerical simulation of thousands of eruptive episodes with diverse properties and probability values.