Inactive for more than 60 years, Vesuvius, the volcano that destroyed Pompeii, is located near Naples, in Southern Italy. The volcano’s clock is ticking.
Italy has more than sixteen volcanoes or volcanic areas, not including the most famous – Vesuvius, near the city of Naples. It is no surprise then that the study of volcanoes began in this country, with the first full description of an erupting volcano.
Pliny the Younger and the Beginnings of Volcano Studies
In 79 AD, Pliny the Younger, later an author and magistrate, was an eye-witness to the total destruction of the flourishing Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. In his letters to Roman historian Tacitus, he minutely described the activity of the volcano.
Before and after 79 AD, Vesuvius erupted many other times but has been relatively quiet since the eruption during World War II, in 1944. Ominously quiet.
Will Vesuvius Erupt Again Soon?
Nowadays, all of Italy’s volcanoes are monitored closely by volcanologists from all over the world, and especially Vesuvius. It is just a few miles from what is now one of the most populous areas in Europe…the Campania region, including the city of Naples, with about a million inhabitants. Urban sprawl has reached and covered the slopes of Vesuvius, once farmland and vineyards, despite the dire warnings of scientists and stringent laws against further building. Mt.Vesuvius now hosts many small towns and villages, with a total population of 555,000.
Plans for Evacuation of the Slopes of Vesuvius
If another eruption occurs, especially one similar to that that which destroyed Pompeii in 79AD, the event would be catastrophic for these populations.”A major eruption of Italy’s Mount Vesuvius could result in 8,000 fatalities, 13,000 serious injuries and total economic losses of more than $24 billion, says a new study. According to the Willis Research Network (WRN), Vesuvius now ranks at the top of the list of Europe’s 10 most dangerous volcanoes.” Though the Italian Civil Protection Agency and the region’s competent offices have organized evacuation plans for the entire area, they may not be sufficient.
A volcanologist at the Vesuvius Observatory has indicated that evacuation authorities have not planned measures complete enough to face the worst-case scenario. Will the roads support a mass evacuation? Will the population leave their homes peaceably? When will the warning be broadcast…a few days before the eruption? A few hours? If the warning is too soon, or incorrect, will the population believe authorities later, when an actual eruption is imminent?
What Killed the Citizens of Pompeii?
These questions may in fact be moot. Here’s why. The general scientific consensus, until recently, has been that in 79 AD all of the citizens of Pompeii died from inhaling hot ash and gas. They breathed the deadly air rolling down from the mountain and into the town after the collapse of the miles high column of ash, pumice stone, gas and lava rising from the crater. Their contorted bodies, found 1700 years later by the first archeologists, seemed to suggest suffocation, either by the inhalation of ash or because of the lack of air in their homes, covered by the ash within minutes of the column collapse.
Recent research has questioned this assumption. The ash flow through the town, measured by estimating wind speed and expansion, would have lasted only a few minutes, not long enough to wipe out the entire population. Volcanologists Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo e Lucia Pappalardo at the Vesuvius Observatory (INGV)and
biologists Pierpaolo Petrone e Fabio Guarino at the University of Naples used modern forensic science and DNA analysis to formulate another theory.
According to these scientists, in 79 AD, at the beginning of the eruption, many of the inhabitants of Pompeii were killed instantly, not by ash suffocation, but by an incandescent wall of gases and molten lapilli, small volcanic “hailstones”, with temperatures hitting more than 300 degrees centigrade (572° F.). Their brains, and then their other organs and tissue, were literally vaporized, exploding onto the skin, where, mixed with ash in the air, they formed that protective shell which preserved their forms for almost two thousand years. The burn marks on their bones and their positions at death seem to confirm the theory. Later, when the column of gas, stone and ash rising from the crater collapsed and slid down the slopes, more inhabitants died of ash inhalation.
Insufficient and Superficial Evacuation Plans?
This new theory would indicate, at minimum, that today’s evacuation plans should be reviewed and perhaps changed, to reflect a perhaps faster and earlier response to the first signs of imminent eruption. The question is, are those responsible – the Civil Protection Agency, the city governments involved, and the government in Rome – listening to the scientists?
There are signs that they are not. To cite just two: A large new public hospital was built recently in the ‘red zone’, the area most at risk, near Vesuvius’ crater. And the head of the Civil Protection Agency, Guido Bertolaso , a Silvio Berlusconi appointee, is under investigation for allegedly setting up a sleaze deal with a Roman builder- sex and money in exchange for government construction contracts.
The hope is that Vesuvius will not erupt anytime soon. Naples and the Neapolitans may not be ready.
“Italian notables feel heat of corruption scandal” Guy Dinmore, Rome,Published: May 13 2010 15:50
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