Life and Death on Stromboli Volcano, Lighthouse of the Mediterranean

If you stand at the summit at night, and you turn your flashlight off, all you can see are diamantine flecks shimmering in the dark. In that moment, you are floating, untethered, in an endless inky pool. The inevitable rumblings of the blackened earth beneath your feet eventually remind you that you remain on this planet. And when a jet of incandescent molten rock shoots skyward and illuminates the land like a flare, you feel as if you are staring down a dragon.

For those seeking to experience the raw and almost preternatural power of a volcano, you would be hard-pressed to find a better place than Stromboli, northwest of the toe of Italy’s boot and aptly known as the Lighthouse of the Mediterranean.

Rising a mere 3,000 feet above the waves of the Tyrrhenian Sea, the seemingly diminutive volcanic isle is famed for its near-continuous summit explosions. Most volcanoes spend much of their lifetime in a state of quiescence, but Stromboli bucks that trend. “It’s always active,” said Maurizio Ripepe, a geophysicist at the University of Florence in Italy. “I always say it’s the most reliable thing in Italy. It’s not like the trains.”

Stromboli is also home to a few hundred full-time residents. Their relationship with the volcano is largely cordial. Its regular explosive activity is confined to the summit, and a slope named the Sciara del Fuoco (“Stream of Fire”) harmlessly funnels superheated debris into the sea. The frequent window-rattling booms have become barely noticeable background noise, while its effervescence has proved highly attractive to paying tourists.

But the volcano is capable of acts of utter devastation. Rare but especially fierce blasts have killed people both at the summit and on its slopes. That danger makes Stromboli a resplendent place punctuated with moments of terror. Gaia Squarci, a photographer and videographer who first visited the island when she was 17, said that there is always “a calm, with a tension underneath.”

Travelers will always want to visit the island too, because erupting volcanoes provide a spectacle like no other. “We love danger, in some ways. It lets us feel immortal,” Mr. Crimi said. “It brings fear and joy together.”

From the moment the signal is detected, everyone has up to 10 minutes to react before the paroxysm arrives. That may be sufficient to save the lives of many, either from the paroxysm itself or any subsequent tsunami. But it’s not a panacea. “If you are at the summit, there is no way to survive,” said Dr. Ripepe. Either the explosion’s shock wave will crush your internal organs, or the hot ash and gas will asphyxiate you. He and his colleagues are now hoping to find other precursors that will give people hours to get to safety.

No matter what advances are made in eruption forecasting, Stromboli, like all volcanoes, remains capable of surprising everyone. “It’s humbling, the fact that we can get better and better at predicting patterns of behavior, but there will always be a high degree of unpredictability,” said Ms. Squarci.

According to Mr. Crimi, plenty of Stromboli’s longtime residents, including those who rely on tourism for their income, don’t want to engage with volcanologists, as they are seen to challenge the island-wide illusion that the volcano can do no harm.

But for some, the knowledge that the specter of death always exists is a thing of counterintuitive beauty. Scientists can try to comprehend Stromboli, but nothing they will do will alter the volcano’s actions.

“The volcano wrote the chapters of the island’s history,” said Ms. Squarci — and it will be the author of the island’s future, too.

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