The Enduring Danger of Mount Vesuvius

I am lucky to sit in an office from which I can see Vesuvius.  As the year goes by, I love to look at the volcano, symbol of Naples, a few kilometres away: sometimes with a snowy cap, sometimes with its cone obscured by a cloud, sometimes as clear as a bell in the crisp air, sometimes hidden by a sudden thunderstorm or by the Naples smog.

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Hump backed Vesuvius, beloved of artists, tourists and writers alike, stands guard over the frenetic, crowded city of Naples, its Bay and its surrounding countryside.  It appears mute and peaceful but is capable of terrifying violence such as during the eruption of 79AD, which exploded at a force 100,000 times that of the Hiroshima bombing, killing 16,000 and entombing Pompeii and Herculaneum and other towns and farms.

Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum. John Martin. 1821

Pliny the Younger wrote:

‘Broad sheets of flame were lighting up many parts of Vesuvius; their light and brightness were the more vivid for the darkness of the night… it was daylight now elsewhere in the world, but there the darkness was darker and thicker than any night’.

Vesuvius has rumbled, groaned, spewed ash and pumice and belched lava ever since.  Pictures, effigies and even relics of San Gennaro, Naples’ patron saint, have been used to ward off the danger to the city, most famously in 1631 when the head of the martyr was taken from the Duomo and marched towards the mountain by the Arch Bishop of Naples.  The eruption stopped…

The last eruption was in 1944 after which it lost its distinctive white plume, giving the impression that the mountain has gone quiet.

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Vesuvius as viewed in 1944 by the USAAF

But experts agree that it is not a case of if Vesuvius will explode but when.  The experts at the Vesuvius observatory, the oldest such Institute in the world, maintain their vigil on the slopes of the mountain.

Satellite Image of Mount Vesuvius, Naples, Italy

Some 3,000,000 people live in the immediate area and plans exist to evacuate 600,000 of these based on the worse case scenario, the 1631 eruption.  But the real danger of Vesuvius is that it is prone to sudden and explosive eruptions on the scale of 79AD.  And no amount of planning is going to be able to cope with a disaster on that scale, especially as the fatalistic Neapolitans continue to live and go about their lives on the slopes.

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