Mount Etna may grab all the headlines these days, but the immense Vesuvius in presiding over the Gulf of Naples in Campania is a far deadlier, volcano. Its last eruption was 60 years ago in 1944 and since then, nothing. Is it about to remind the world of its presence?
The most dangerous
volcano in the world
While Etna may be the more beautiful volcano, Vesuvius is the more powerful. She is the only volcano on mainland Europe to have erupted in the last hundred years. Looking at its peaceful slumber above the tranquil Gulf of Naples it is hard to imagine that she could, at any moment, wreak havoc and destruction on millions of lives. Live goes on in chaotic, resilient, vibrant Naples, but always in the shadow of the great Vesuvius.
The volcano is best known of course for the eruption in 79AD that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum. That explosion released plumes of ash and fumes 33km high and released 100,000 times the thermal energy of the Hiroshima bomb. The eruption was so powerful that it altered the mountain’s appearance forever.
Vesuvius now has the appearance of an ‘exploded mountain’, the crater or ‘Gran Cono’ at the top, is the remains of a much higher structure called Monte Somma.
Vesuvius has erupted regularly since then, apart from a period of quiescence at the end of the 13th century. The mountain became green once more and settlers planted vines on her slopes as they had done in ancient times, but in 1631 a major eruption buried many villages killing about 3,000 and Vesuvius entered a new period of activity with many eruptions of varying degrees of violence occurring in the 18th and 19th centuries.
She has only erupted three times in the 20th century, in 1904, 1908, when the of the interrupted Naples’ plans to host the summer Olympics and the event was moved to London, and the last eruption in 1944.
Italy was already on her knees after suffering decades of brutal Fascist rule, German occupation, Allied bombing and what was effectively a civil war during 1943 and ’45. As if to contextualise the man-made suffering, in March of 1944, Vesuvius did what it has been doing for some 17,000 years, awoke from its slumber and spewed tons of molten ash and fumes into the air and sent a wall of molten lava advancing down her slopes. The villages of San Sebastiano al Vesuvio, Massa di Somma, Ottaviano, and part of San Giorgio a Cremano were destroyed.
Luckily the city of Naples about 10 km away remained untouched apart form the continuous raining down of volcanic ash. The presence of the US air force meant that the eruption was captured on film, both on the ground an in the air, they remain the only moving pictures of Vesuvius in action and they are quite terrifying.
Vesuvius is considered the most dangerous volcano in the world, it is temperamental and violent, it is an active volcano in the most densely populated volcanic region in the world. What of the future of Mount Vesuvius? While 60 years is a relatively long time of inactivity, Neapolitans are no fools and they know that she is overdue an eruption. It doesn’t stop them wanting to build on her slopes, the government cordoned off the area designating it a national park, partly to protect her unique ecology, but also to prevent further building.
The Italian government’s emergency plan assumes the worst-case scenario for an eruption would be one similar in size and type to 1631. In this scenario, the slopes of the mountain spreading out 7km from the vent would be prone to pyroclastic lava flows throughout them, while the whole surrounding area would be vulnerable to tephra falls (hot fragmented material raining down from the sky). The plan assumes two weeks to 20 days’ notice of an eruption and has an evacuation plan for 600,000 people. Giving the scale of the mountain and proximity of population, this could be viewed as an extremely optimistic outlook, but there isn’t much to be done. The evacuation of an entire city just isn’t possible. Again it’s tempting to point to a Neapolitan character that is both optimistic and opportunistic. Is the character formed by living in such close quarters with Vesuvius?
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