If you think Naples is chaotic, you would probably be right. But is it, as the age old question goes, nature or nurture? A question I’ve asked myself many times, could it be that the answer to the chaotic, quirky, characteristic nature of Neapolitans can be found in mother earth?

Over the next few months I will be looking at all of the geological forces at play around this beautiful city, the one with the most famous volcano on earth. Like a pot of Giuseppe’s Ragù Napoletano slowly splattering away on the stove; this is the geology of Naples. A region where the earth is alive, moving, bubbling, boiling and burning.

Join me for my series EarthScape Naples and hopefully, all will be revealed.

Geologically, Naples is one of the most complicated places on earth. So much so, that on one official map produced by the Italian Government, it is a black hole, a concept I promise to explain in a future post. But before we get to that, we should probably start at the very beginning of this story, with how the earth is formed.

The earth’s outer shell, the lithosphere, is composed of a series of interlocking, moving plates. Think of it as a jig-saw puzzle. All those interlocking pieces can move slightly and push against each other, but will break apart if subjected to major jolts. These plates are made of cool solid rock and vary in size and shape.

Of the nine major plates, six are named for the continents embedded in them: the North American, South American, Eurasian, African, Indo-Australian, and Antarctic. The other three are oceanic plates: the Pacific, Nazca, and Cocos. There are also a number of smaller plates throughout the world which can be seen on the map below.

Map Courtesy of the USGS

Now you can begin to see this jig-saw puzzle and its many interlocking pieces. Note that where the plates intersect is where the volcanoes (red dots) and earthquakes occur. The plates are in constant motion. They grind against each other, break apart, collide and sometimes slip under one another. Where the plates touch, along their margins, important geological processes take place, such as the formation of mountain ranges, earthquakes, and volcanoes.

Even under the oceans, the sea floor is being pulled apart and hot volcanic material rising from the earth’s mantle creates new oceanic crust. Undersea mountain chains, volcanoes and trenches are even larger than those on land.

To give you an example, the Mariana Trench, in the Pacific Ocean (11”21’N, 142”12’E) is 36,201feet (6.8 miles) deep. Two of my colleagues at the Explorers Club, my friend, Captain Don Walsh, was the first person to reach the bottom in 1960, and James Cameron, the director of the movie Titanic, just completed his descent.

Now let’s look at where Italy fits into all this action. It is right in the midst of a slow collision between the African, Eurasian and Anatolian plates. The Alps for example were formed by these plates pushing up. Think of it as pushing a rug up with your foot. Notice how it pushes up into overlapping folds. This is the same type of force that formed the Alps.

The Apennines were formed from the collision of the smaller Apulian plate with the Iberian plate (not shown). The fault line along the Apennines is responsible for the many earthquakes in central Italy. The Apennines are folded, faulted and constantly generating earthquakes as the result of the forces of the plates. The 6.3 magnitude earthquake at L’Aquila in 2009 for example, was the deadliest earthquake to hit Italy since 1980.

The moving and pushing of Italy caused by the movement of the African plate as it pushes below the Eurasian plate results in earthquakes and ongoing volcanic activity in the southern part of the country.

Italy is constantly being pushed up and down, and shoved and shaken by the African, Eurasian and Anatolian plates and the movement of these plates has been responsible for some great natural disasters. At the same time however, the geological forces at play in this region have formed Italy into one of the the most beautiful countries on earth.

Next up – The Umbilical Cord

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Ann Pizzorusso is a geologist and Italian Renaissance scholar. After many years of doing virtually everything in the world of geology (drilling for oil, hunting for gems, cleaning up pollution in soil and groundwater) she turned her geologic skills toward Leonardo da Vinci. See her work on Leonardo’s Geology. You can find Ann on Facebook at Leonardo da Vinci Virgin of the Rocks and on Twitter @VirginoftheRock.