June 22, 2006

Massive underwater volcano discovered off Sicily

By Phil Stewart

ROME (Reuters) - An underwater volcano with a base larger
than Washington D.C. has been discovered just off the shores of
Sicily, a scientist with Italy's National Institute of
Geophysics and Vulcanology said on Thursday.

The volcanic structure, which incorporates peaks previously
thought to be separate volcanoes, was named Empedocles after
the Greek philosopher who named the four classic elements of
earth, air, fire and water.

Legend has it that the philosopher died by throwing himself
into Mount Etna, the nearby Sicilian volcano.

Giovanni Lanzafame, who works at the institute and led the
research, said Empedocles was at least 400 meters (1,300 feet)
high -- taller than the Eiffel Tower.

He said the base of the structure was 30 km (18.6 miles)
long and 25 km wide, spanning an area larger than the U.S.
capital and making it Italy's largest underwater volcano.

But Lanzafame said Sicilians did not need to worry about
the sleeping Empedocles. "At this point, there's no imminent
danger of an eruption," he told Reuters.

Lanzafame and another official said the volcano had
numerous fumaroles, openings in the Earth's crust that emit
steam and gases, like the ones at Yellowstone National Park in
the United States. But they described it as largely inactive.

The identification of Empedocles came during research into
the submerged volcanic island of Ferdinandea just off Sicily's
southern coast. Often held to be the tip of a small volcano,
Lanzafame said it was just a part of Empedocles.

Volcanic activity has raised the island out of the sea
several times in recorded history, with underwater eruptions
first described during the first Punic War of 264-241 B.C.

Its emergence in 1831 caused months of international
wrangling, with several nations making territorial claims
before it submerged again. It is now about 7 meters below the
surface of the water.

Cesare Corselli, president of the National Inter-University
Consortium for Marine Science, which helped with the research,
said previously the volcanic centers had been seen as separate.

"People used to think that there were small centers of
emission, distant from each other," he said.

"The hypothesis made by Mr. Lanzafame is that this is a
singular volcano that, like alongside Etna as an example, can
have a central eruption or a series of lateral eruptions."

Lanzafame said he had been working on the theory about the
Empedocles's existence for more than a year before being able
to confirm it with new survey equipment.