Faculty Blog
Prof. McGarry
August 12, 2013

Professor Mary Ann McGarry from Plymouth State University was selected as the 2012/13 SAI Faculty Fellow in Rome.  The Faculty Fellows Program recognizes faculty from SAI’s U.S. affiliate colleges and universities who are engaged in scholarship activities that promote global awareness, and deepen the understanding of the arts and sciences.  In the following post, Professor McGarry reflects on her time exploring the history, culture, and volcanoes of the Italian peninsula. To learn more about this program, click here.

Exploring Volcanoes on the Italian Peninsula: Mary Ann McGarry

An email from our Global Education Office at Plymouth State University (PSU) arrived in my mailbox about the Study Abroad Italy (SAI) Faculty Fellowship approximately one month before the October 1st deadline.  One of my professional interests is natural hazards- including volcanoes, something we do not have in New Hampshire where I live and work.  As I discovered in doing research about volcanoes in Italy, this is the only country that has two “decade volcanoes”- volcanoes that are considered the most dangerous in the world because they have huge populations living on their flanks.  For my proposal I decided it would be great if I could bring back firsthand information and observations from visiting Vesuvius and Etna in Italy.

The SAI Fellowship provides roundtrip airfare and an apartment for a month.  Out of the locations offered, I chose Rome as it was the closest to the decade volcanoes. The SAI staff helped me find a place where I could pay for an extra room to accommodate my teenage daughter, Sydney.  I chose March for my month’s stay, which meant I could be in NH to support my daughter during her high school Nordic racing season and then bring her with me for a rich, cultural, experience in another country, something I vowed to do for my sabbatical.

I gave two presentations while in Italy, one at John Cabot University in Rome and the other in Sorrento for Plymouth State University students and others who were at Sant’Anna Institute ( for the semester with one of my PSU colleagues.  The first presentation had a small attendance and the other a large turnout.  The size of the audience didn’t matter, what was important to me is the discussion and interaction that followed.  My first presentation is memorable for one main reason, as I was discussing Vesuvius’ volcanic smoke, church bells started ringing wildly.  What was up?  Someone checked their phone and we learned white smoke had just been released from the Sistine Chapel, signaling the selection of a new pope.  Everyone left my talk excited about the news.

In Sorrento, following my presentation, I had the good fortune to be able to join a fieldtrip up Vesuvious, organized by Sant’Anna Institute. There were a number of Italian geologists along, which gave me the opportunity to ask questions and supplement my library research at John Cabot University.  The most exciting discovery I made regarding volcanoes while on my SAI Faculty Fellowship was about Campi Flegrei- a supervolcano, like what exists at Yellowstone National Park. There is no giant visible cone, only a 13 kilometer wide, large caldera which partially sits underwater on the coast to the west of Naples, near Vesuvius.  Active fumaroles in a hydrothermal field are causing problems for development in the area.  So, although Vesuvius has a recorded history of causing human destruction, Campi Flegrei, if it erupted would cause more global catastrophic effects.  Deciding which volcano is really a greater threat depends on different variables.

Local artistic view of Etna

I was able to combine a multi-day trip to Sorrento with a visit to Pompeii on my birthday with my family – a treasured family event.   We hired Ilaria Tartaglia as a tour guide, a Ph.D. archaeologist who worked on the excavation of Pompeii and at Sant’Anna as a professor. She was able to answer my questions about a tsunami that was triggered by the swarm of earthquakes that occurred when Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D.  Pliny, whose accounts survived, described what seemed to be the drawdown of the tide at the shore- a telltale sign that a tsunami wave would follow.  “The sea appeared to have shrunk, as if withdrawn by the tremors of the earth.  In any event the shore had widened and many sea creatures had beached on the sand,” Lancaster, John; 2009, In The Shadow of Vesuvius. Our guide knew of physical evidence of a boat being filled with sand which would have come from a powerful tsunami wave.

SAI also provided valuable contacts for an excursion to Sicily; I had to see both Vesuvius and Etna during my SAI Faculty Fellowship.  Marcello Baglioni, of Agave Travel Creative, set us up with two fantastic Ph.D. guides.  My daughter, a friend, and I arrived in Catalina right after an eruption of Etna. When our first guide greeted us at the airport, he held out some black, pumice like rocks the size of grapes which had landed on his car, the day before.  He pointed out where a new black cinder cone had formed near the summit of Etna which contrasted sharply with the surrounding snow covered peaks.

New Cinder Cone on Etna

Our first trip on the island of Sicily however was to Pantilica, a World Heritage UNESCO site of Greek origin in the Anapo Valley. The area was interesting from a geologic as well as an anthropological cultural perspective.  The necropolis has thousands of tombs dating from the 13th to the 7th centuries BC carved into the limestone canyon.  The setting and history was intriguing and well explained by our knowledgeable and masterful story teller/guide Dr. Michael Metcalfe did a superb job of explaining the intriguing history and setting.  My daughter Sydney was writing about how the dead were handled in Rome; we had visited crypts and catacombs (carved into volcanic hardened ash called tuff) and she could now add the Pantilica story.

Pantilica, UNESCO Site

As we returned from our packed weekend on Sicily we were treated to an aerial view of Stromboli, an unmistakable volcano rising from the Tyrrhenian Sea.   Stromboli has the distinction of erupting almost continuously since 1934 and major lava flows occurred in 2013. The views from the plane were worth the cost of the trip, 135 euros (~ $170 U.S. dollars) of the roundtrip flight on Blue Panorama Airlines.

I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel to numerous countries-for conferences, with students on faculty led short courses and even for a semester abroad experience, and also with professional colleagues to build international partnerships between organizations and institutions; but the SAI Faculty Fellowship was unique for all it offered.  The experience will continue to have lasting impacts for both me and my family.


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