Surprising magma chamber found under Mediterranean volcano near popular tourist destination

Surprising magma chamber found under Mediterranean volcano near popular tourist destination

A new study has uncovered a previously undiscovered magma chamber beneath Kolumbo, an active underwater volcano in the Mediterranean Sea near Santorini, Greece.

According to a Jan. 12 publication by the American Geophysical Union (AGU), a group of international researchers used a novel volcanic imaging technique that produces high-resolution images of the properties of seismic waves.

The study was published in the AGU journal Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, and the authors noted that the chamber’s presence “poses a serious hazard as it could trigger a highly explosive, tsunami-genic eruption in the near future.”

Researchers recommend real-time hazard monitoring stations near other active underwater volcanoes to improve estimates of when an eruption is likely.

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“The current state of the reservoir suggests that a high societal impact explosive eruption is possible in the future (although not imminent). Therefore, we propose to set up a permanent observatory that will include continuous seismic monitoring and seafloor geodesy,” they wrote.

The indicated eruption would be similar to the recent Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai eruption, but of smaller magnitude, and would result in a predicted tsunami and an eruption column tens of kilometers high.

Maxar satellite imagery shows Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano on December 24, 2021 before erupting on January 14, 2022 in the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai Islands, Tonga.

Maxar satellite imagery shows Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano on December 24, 2021 before erupting on January 14, 2022 in the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai Islands, Tonga.
(Maxar via Getty Images)

The study was reportedly the first to use full-waveform inversion seismic imaging to look for changes in magmatic activity beneath the surface of underwater volcanoes along the Hellenic Arc, where the volcano is located.

Undersea volcanic activity along a section of the sea floor of the Kolumbo Crater observed with SANTORY monitors.

Undersea volcanic activity along a section of the sea floor of the Kolumbo Crater observed with SANTORY monitors.
(SANTORIES)

The technology is applied to seismic profiles, or records of ground motion along kilometers of lines, and assesses differences in wave speeds, which can indicate subsurface anomalies. The group found that full waveform inversion technology can be used in volcanic regions to find potential locations, sizes and melting rates of mobile magma bodies.

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The seismic profiles were created after the scientists fired airgun blasts from aboard a research vessel cruising over the volcanic region, triggering seismic waves that were recorded by seafloor seismometers along the arc.

A significantly reduced velocity of seismic waves propagating beneath the seafloor suggested the presence of a mobile magma chamber beneath Kolumbo, according to the study, using the properties of the wave anomalies to better assess the potential hazards the magma chamber could pose to understand.

Images helped identify a large magma chamber that has been growing at an average rate of about 4 million cubic meters per year since Columbo’s last eruption in AD 1650, almost 400 years ago.

A view of the town of Oia with its limestone houses and blue-domed churches on Santorini in the Aegean Sea.

A view of the town of Oia with its limestone houses and blue-domed churches on Santorini in the Aegean Sea.
(Marcos del Mazo/LightRocket via Getty Images/File)

The last Kolumbo eruption killed 70 people on Santorini.

The study’s lead author noted that if the current rate of growth of the magma chamber continues, the volcano could reach the melt volume of 2 cubic kilometers estimated to have been erupted during the 1650 AD eruption sometime in the next 150 years.

Although the volume of volcanic melt can be estimated, there’s no way to say for sure when Kolumbo, which lies about 500 meters below the surface, will next erupt.

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“We need better data on what’s actually underneath these volcanoes,” Kajetan Chrapkiewicz, a geophysicist at Imperial College London and lead author of the study, said in a statement. “Continuous monitoring systems would allow us to better estimate when an outbreak might occur. With these systems, we would likely know about an outbreak a few days before it did, and people could evacuate and stay safe.”

In recent years, scientists have been working on setting up SANTORY (Santorini’s Seafloor Volcanic Observatory), which will be able to measure progress in Columbo’s volcanic activity. It is still under development.

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