Vesuvius, US Study Shows Naples Under Threat
American scientific journal Pnas publishes a study on the effects of an eruption 4,000 years ago more devastating than the one that wiped out Pompei. New explosions would totally devastate Naples and suburbs
ROME – Four thousand years ago an eruption of Mt Vesuvius that was even more destructive than the one that wiped out Pompeii in AD 79 convulsed the area covered by the present-day sprawl of Naples. Long-familiar to archaeologists, the effects of that eruption are for the first time the focus of a study published in the American scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Pnas).

PILLAR OF FIRE – In its first phase, that eruption, which occurred in the Early Bronze Age, produced an enormous column of gas and ash that reached 36 kilometres up unto the stratosphere. To the east of the volcano, rocks hailed down from the sky, hammering an area that covered thousands of square kilometres. In the last stages of the eruption, the collapsing gas column produced huge burning clouds full of ash hundreds of degrees hot, which first moved at speeds of at least 300 km an hour, devastating the countryside around the volcano for a twenty kilometre radius. The study’s authors are Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo and Lucia Pappalardo, volcanologists from the Vesuvius Observatory, Pier Paolo Petrone, anthropologist from Naples’ Università Federico II, and Michael Sheridan, volcanologist from the University at Buffalo (NY).

MASS EXODUS - The start of the eruption saw a mass exodus involving thousands of people, before the devastating final collapse of the Plinian column. Most of the escaping population probably survived, but the total desertification of the surrounding area wrought by the force of the eruption triggered social and demographic turmoil. For at least two hundred years, much of the plain and nearby hills, an area covering tens of thousands of square kilometres, was abandoned

RISKS FOR NAPLES – The most important finding from the study, as the researchers underline, is that an eruption of such magnitude would totally wipe out Naples and its suburbs, and that such an event must be considered when constructing possible scenarios around a future eruption of Mt Vesuvius. “We always have to factor in the worst case scenario,” explained Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo, “because, as we saw in New Orleans and Sarno, the real catastrophes only happen when you don’t weigh up the worst case properly”.

POPULATION IN FLIGHT – The archaeological sites that have allowed researchers to reconstruct the eruption are located mostly around Nola and Avellino, but there are others to the north of Naples, at Gricignano and Afragola. The eruption had devastating effects on an area that stretched up to 15 kilometres from the volcano and all of the sites examined in the study reveal signs of the population taking flight in haste: dishes left abandoned on the ground in huts and above all the tracks left by people and animals trying to flee from the villages as soon as the columns of gas and ash began to rise up from Mt Vesuvius. The only bodies with substantial remains left were of a man and woman found buried under ash in a spot some 17 kilometres from the volcano. Many others died when the ash in the air became so thick it got into their lungs and suffocated them.
English translation by Patrick McKeown