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Pantelleria via Shutterstock
Shattering Past

This island - a celebrity favourite - used to be covered in hot green glass

45,000 years ago…

TODAY, IT IS visited by the likes of Madonna, Sting and Julia Roberts but, in the past, the island of Pantelleria was a hot destination in a different sense of the word.

Historians have confirmed this week that the secluded land – between Sicily and Tunisia – was once covered entirely in a searing-hot layer of green glass.

According to what has been described as a ground-breaking study by University of Leicester geologists, Pantelleria, a volcano, looked very different 45,000 years ago.

Volcanologists Drs Mike Branney and Rebecca Williams have dedicated themselves to uncovering previously unknown facts about the island’s physical history.

SpectacularSea Cliffs at Pantelleria volcano island Mike Branney / University of Leicester Mike Branney / University of Leicester / University of Leicester

Describing what happened those thousands of years ago, Dr Branney says:

“A ground-hugging cloud of intensely hot gases and volcanic dust spread radially out from the erupting volcano in all directions.

“Incandescent rock fragments suspended in the all-enveloping volcanic cloud were so hot, molten and sticky that they simply fused to the landscape forming a layer of glass, over hills and valleys alike.

The hot glass then actually started flowing down all the slopes rather like sticky lava. ‘Ground zero’ in this case was the entire island — nothing would have survived — nature had sterilised and completely enamelled the island.

“Today Pantelleria is verdant and has been re-colonised, but even as you approach it by ferry you can see the green layer of glass covering everything — even sea cliffs look like they’ve been draped in candle wax. Exactly how this happened has only recently come to light.”

As part of their work, the Leicester team has recontructed how the incandescent density current gradually inundated the entire island.

They mapped out how the chemistry of the glass varied from place to place to show how the current gradually advanced from the low, central areas to the hills.

They were also able to prove that the glass current then retreated from the hilltops so that by the end of the eruption, only the area close the volcano was covered with the green stuff.

This could be significant to events today, say the researchers, as it may help gain a better understanding of undersea currents that are triggered by earthquakes.

But first they have to find out if this volcanic eruption was just a “freak, oddball event”.

“Well, it turns out that the delightful island, now used as a quiet getaway by celebrities, has been the site of at least five catastrophic eruptions of similar type.

“The remarkable volcanic activity on the island was not just a one-off.  And as the volcano continues to steam away quite safely, it seems reasonable that in thousands of years time, it may once again erupt with devastating effect.

“Our investigations should help us understand what happens during similar and much larger explosive eruptions elsewhere around the world, such as the Yellowstone–Snake River region of USA.”

Read: ‘Biggest dinosaur ever’ would have weighed the same as 14 African elephants

More: “Unstoppable” melting of Antarctic ice will have major impact on sea level, scientists warn 

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