Stromboli, Italy: Building On The Volcano

The view from Punta la Bronzo Pizzeria on the upper reaches of the volcanic island of Stromboli is stunning. Tiny islands dot the turquoise sea in the distance, and dramatic cliffs tower above a black-sand beach below. The lifestyle is a blend of opulence and simplicity: Stromboli is car-free, the local community is generous to visitors and the food is divine. It's no surprise that wealthy Italians from the president of the republic, Giorgio Napolitano, to the luxe designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana keep summer villas here. Lately, however, the blue skies are hazy and the fresh air is powdered with volcanic ash, thanks to an eruption that began on Feb. 27.

The sight of red-hot lava running down the sides of Stromboli should not have come as a surprise to its swank residents. Stromboli is the most active volcano on the planet, says the U.S. Geological Survey. Yet new construction has risen nearly 20 percent in the last decade, mostly multimillion-euro villas tucked into the tiny island's lush volcanic hills. And what about the people with second homes on Mount Etna and Mount Vesuvius, where developers are putting up a 450-house settlement and more than a dozen new hotels and guesthouses near Pompeii? Bernardo de Bernardinis, national director of the Italian Civil Protection department, has his own theory. "There is a very deep appeal to the volcano."

Another answer is becoming clearer in this era of burgeoning populations and rising seas: there is precious little land to be had in Europe, and Italy in particular. Private villas in Tuscany, if you can find one, sell for 25 percent higher than on Stromboli. Rising sea levels will only make the situation worse. A study by the American Association for the Advancement of Science predicts a rise of as much as 20 centimeters, cutting into both sides of Italy's peninsula, by 2030. Beach resorts in Tuscany, the Amalfi coast in the south and the islands of Sicily and Sardinia will be eroded from storm surges and larger waves. What's more, many formerly attractive resort areas on the coasts and in the interior are getting unbearably hot. Italy now has "35 to 42 tropical nights when temperatures fall to no less than 20 degrees C," says Bill McGuire, director of the Benfield-UCL Hazard Research Centre. Up on the mountains, by contrast, the air is often 10 degrees cooler, the land is fertile thanks to the ash and minerals, property is less expensive and the zoning restrictions are fewer.

Technology is what enables residents to live with the risk. Tucked inside a log cabin that serves as the volcano observatory and Civil Protection command center on the flanks of Stromboli, computers monitor the slightest fluctuation in seismic activity, soil movement, air temperature and even the lava's texture on the mountain. "We knew Stromboli was changing its pattern five hours before lava started flowing," says Roberto Forina, spokesman for Italian Civil Protection. "We sounded the sirens and got everyone to safety in plenty of time."

But the technology may be too reassuring. Lava from the recent eruption has already created a new peninsula on the island, and authorities fear that violent explosions could send a big hunk of the volcano crashing into the sea, creating a tsunami. It happened in 2002: a 10-meter tidal wave inflicted millions of euros' worth of damage on Stromboli and the nearby island of Panarea and closed the islands to tourists for months. State-of-the-art equipment cannot predict such events, nor can geologists guarantee sufficient warning to escape an eruption.

Try telling that to the locals. "You can't live in fear," says Susan Scibilia, who owns La Trottola restaurant on Stromboli and has lived with the volcano's wrath for 35 years. "The benefits of living on this island far outweigh the risks." The authorities are just as philosophical. "It's a volcano," says Forina, "and at the end of the day it will do what it wants."

Join the Discussion