A TEAM of scientists from a Scottish university have been using the site where a supervolcano erupted five centuries ago to gain insights into the route taken by hot fluids.

Researchers from the University of Aberdeen used the sound of the seas to discover the route taken by hot fluids, and have seen their studies featured on a popular US documentary series.

Using an innovative technique that uses the “hum” – or seismic noise – of waves crashing on to the coastline of Campi Flegrei in southern Italy, scientists were able to produce a visualisation of the deeper structure of the supervolcano – a large volcano with a maximum eruption magnitude of 8, the largest value on the Volcanic Explosivity Index.

Those seismic images reveal the main route bringing hot fluids to the surface.

The scientists’ research has featured in the documentary The Next Pompeii, broadcast on the popular PBS series Nova. The documentary highlights the innovative scientific techniques being used to monitor Campi Flegrei – a volcanic caldera to the west of Naples.

The area has been relatively quiet since the 1980s, when the injection of volcanic material in the shallower structure of the volcano caused thousands of small earthquakes, which was followed by 38 years of relative silence.

Seismic imaging is one of the main methods used by scientists to accurately map a volcano’s structure at depth, however the low level of seismic activity in the area over nearly four decades has meant that Campi Flegrei’s inner structure has remained a mystery – until now.

The so-called “feeder pathway” discovered by scientists is believed to have been formed during the last period of seismic activity in the 1980s, and brings volcanic material from the depths of the volcano, located out at sea.

The material then travels up and along established routes beneath the volcano towards fumaroles at Solfatara and Pisciarelli – located approximately in the centre of the caldera – where they are expelled as vapour through steaming vents.

Seismologists professor Luca De Siena, Dr Carmelo Sammarco and Dr David Cornwell led the study from the School of Geosciences at the University of Aberdeen. They worked alongside the Vesuvius Observatory, which advises the Italian government’s department of civil protection of the threat posed by volcanic activity in the region.

De Siena, now at the University of Mainz, said: “By using the noise at the seashore to create a seismic image, we have finally a better idea of how volcanic material travels from the depths of the volcano to the surface.”

“This is the first time this relatively new technique has been used in a heavily populated area, and it shows us that the feeder pathway created at the beginning of the 1980s appears fully functional in 2011-2013, when we collected the data.

He continued: “This is important as it improves our understanding of the character of the volcano, which may ultimately improve monitoring and early warning procedures in an area inhabited by millions of people.”