Life and Death on the Lighthouse of the Mediterranean

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If you stand at the summit at night, and you turn your flashlight off, all you can see are diamantine
flecks shimmering in the dark. In that moment, you are floating, untethered, in an endless inky pool. The inevitable rumblings of the blackened earth beneath your feet eventually remind you that you remain on this planet. And when a jet of incandescent molten rock shoots skyward and illuminates the land like a flare, you feel as if you are staring down a dragon.

For those seeking to experience the raw and almost preternatural power of a volcano, you would be hard-pressed to find a better place than Stromboli, northwest of the toe of Italy's boot and aptly known as the Lighthouse of the Mediterranean.

Rising a mere 3,000 feet above the waves of the Tyrrhenian Sea, the seemingly diminutive volcanic isle is famed for its near-continuous summit explosions. Most volcanoes spend much of their lifetime in a state of quiescence, but Stromboli bucks that trend. "It's always active," said Maurizio Ripepe, a geophysicist at the University of Florence in Italy. "I always say it's the most reliable thing in Italy. It's not like the trains."

Stromboli is also home to a few hundred full-time residents. Their relationship with the volcano is largely cordial. Its regular explosive activity is confined to the summit, and a slope named the Sciara del Fuoco ("Stream of Fire") harmlessly funnels superheated debris into the sea. The frequent window-rattling booms have become barely noticeable background noise, while its effervescence has proved highly attractive to paying tourists.

But the volcano is capable of acts of utter devastation. Rare but especially fierce blasts have killed people both at the summit and on its slopes. That danger makes Stromboli a resplendent place punctuated with moments of terror. Gaia Squarci, a photographer and videographer who first visited the island when she was 17, said that there is always "a calm, with a tension underneath."

Everyone has a unique relationship with this paradoxical landscape. Scientists approach Stromboli as detectives. They hope…
New York Times
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