Volcanic rocks resembling Roman concrete explain record uplift in Italian caldera

The discovery of a fiber-reinforced, concrete-like rock
formed in the depths of a dormant supervolcano could help explain the unusual
ground swelling that led to the evacuation of an Italian port city and inspire
durable building materials in the future, Stanford scientists say.

The “natural concrete” at the Campi Flegrei
volcano is similar to Roman concrete, a legendary compound invented by the
Romans and used to construct the Pantheon, the Coliseum, and ancient shipping
ports throughout the Mediterranean.

“This implies the existence of a natural process in the
subsurface of Campi Flegrei that is similar to the one that is used to produce
concrete,” said Tiziana Vanorio, an experimental geophysicist at
Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences.

Campi Flegrei lies at the center of a large depression, or
caldera, that is pockmarked by craters formed during past eruptions, the last
of which occurred nearly 500 years ago. Nestled within this caldera is the
colorful port city of Pozzuoli, which was founded in 600 B.C. by the Greeks and
called “Puteoli” by the Romans.

Beginning in 1982, the ground beneath Pozzuoli began rising
at an alarming rate. Within a two-year span, the uplift exceeded six feet-an
amount unprecedented anywhere in the world. “The rising sea bottom
rendered the Bay of Pozzuoli too shallow for large craft,” Vanorio said.

Making matters worse, the ground swelling was accompanied by
swarms of micro-earthquakes. Many of the tremors were too small to be felt, but
when a magnitude 4 quake juddered Pozzuoli, officials evacuated the city’s
historic downtown. Pozzuoli became a ghost town overnight.

A teenager at the time, Vanorio was among the approximately
40,000 residents forced to flee Pozzuoli and settle in towns scattered between
Naples and Rome. The event made an impression on the young Vanorio, and inspired
her interests in the geosciences. Now an assistant professor at Stanford,
Vanorio decided to apply her knowledge about how rocks in the deep Earth
respond to mechanical and chemical changes to investigate how the ground
beneath Pozzuoli was able to withstand so much warping before cracking and
setting off micro-earthquakes.

“Ground swelling occurs at other calderas such as
Yellowstone or Long Valley in the United States, but never to this degree, and
it usually requires far less uplift to trigger earthquakes at other
places,” Vanorio said. “At Campi Flegrei, the micro-earthquakes were
delayed by months despite really large ground deformations.”

To understand why the surface of the caldera was able to
accommodate incredible strain without suddenly cracking, Vanorio and a
post-doctoral associate, Waruntorn Kanitpanyacharoen, studied rock cores from
the region. In the early 1980s, a deep drilling program probed the active
geothermal system of Campi Flegrei to a depth of about 2 miles. When the pair
analyzed the rock samples, they discovered that Campi Flegrei’s caprock-a hard
rock layer located near the caldera’s surface-is rich in pozzolana, or volcanic
ash from the region.

The scientists also noticed that the caprock contained
tobermorite and ettringite-fibrous minerals that are also found in humanmade
concrete. These minerals would have made Campi Flegrei’s caprock more ductile,
and their presence explains why the ground beneath Pozzuoli was able to
withstand significant bending before breaking and shearing. But how did
tobermorite and ettringite come to form in the caprock?

Once again, the drill cores provided the crucial clue. The
samples showed that the deep basement of the caldera-the “wall” of
the bowl-like depression-consisted of carbonate-bearing rocks similar to
limestone, and that interspersed within the carbonate rocks was a needle-shaped
mineral called actinolite.

“The actinolite was the key to understanding all of the
other chemical reactions that had to take place to form the natural cement at
Campi Flegrei,” said Kanitpanyacharoen, who is now at Chulalongkorn
University in Thailand.

From the actinolite and graphite, the scientists deduced
that a chemical reaction called decarbonation was occurring beneath Campi
Flegrei. They believe that the combination of heat and circulating mineral-rich
waters decarbonates the deep basement, prompting the formation of actinolite as
well as carbon dioxide gas. 

As the CO2 mixes with calcium-carbonate and
hydrogen in the basement rocks, it triggers a chemical cascade that produces
several compounds, one of which is calcium hydroxide. Calcium hydroxide, also
known as portlandite or hydrated lime, is one of the two key ingredients in
humanmade concrete, including Roman concrete. Circulating geothermal fluids transport
this naturally occurring lime up to shallower depths, where it combines with
the pozzolana ash in the caprock to form an impenetrable, concrete-like rock
capable of withstanding very strong forces.

“This is the same chemical reaction that the ancient
Romans unwittingly exploited to create their famous concrete, but in Campi
Flegrei it happens naturally,” Vanorio said.

In fact, Vanorio suspects that the inspiration for Roman
concrete came from observing interactions between the volcanic ash at Pozzuoli
and seawater in the region. The Roman philosopher Seneca, for example, noted
that the “dust at Puteoli becomes stone if it touches water.”

“The Romans were keen observers of the natural world
and fine empiricists,” Vanorio said. “Seneca, and before him
Vitruvius, understood that there was something special about the ash at
Pozzuoli, and the Romans used the pozzolana to create their own concrete,
albeit with a different source of lime.”

Pozzuoli was the main commercial and military port for the
Roman Empire, and 
it was common for ships to use pozzolana as ballast while
trading grain from the eastern Mediterranean. As a result of this practice,
volcanic ash from Campi Flegrei-and the use of Roman concrete-spread across the
ancient world. Archeologists have recently found that piers in Alexandria,
Caesarea, and Cyprus are all made from Roman concrete and have pozzolana as a
primary ingredient.

Interestingly, the same chemical reaction that is
responsible for the unique properties of the Campi Flegrei’s caprock can also
trigger its downfall. If too much decarbonation occurs-as might happen if a
large amount of saltwater, or brine, gets injected into the system-an excess of
carbon dioxide, methane and steam is produced. As these gases rise toward the
surface, they bump up against the natural cement layer, warping the caprock.
This is what lifted Pozzuoli in the 1980s. When strain from the pressure
buildup exceeded the strength of the caprock, the rock sheared and cracked,
setting off swarms of micro-earthquakes. As pent-up gases and fluids vent into
the atmosphere, the ground swelling subsided. Vanorio and Kanitpanyacharoen
suspect that as more calcium hydroxide was produced at depth and transported to
the surface, the damaged caprock was slowly repaired, its cracks
“healed” as more natural cement was produced.

Vanorio believes the conditions and processes responsible
for the exceptional rock properties at Campi Flegrei could be present at other
calderas around the world. A better understanding of the conditions and
processes that formed Campi Flegrei’s caprock could also allow scientists to
recreate it in the lab, and perhaps even improve upon it to engineer more
durable and resilient concretes that are better able to withstand large
stresses and shaking, or to heal themselves after damage.

“There is a need for eco-friendly materials and
concretes that can accommodate stresses more easily,” Vanorio said.
“For example, extracting natural gas by hydraulic fracturing can cause
rapid stress changes that cause concrete well casings to fail and lead to gas leaks
and water contamination.”

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Posted on August 5, 2015, in Useful Information. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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