eBook Chapter: Vesuvius

Soon . . . like perhaps before Christmas, certainly before the end of the year. Meanwhile, here is the next-to-last chapter of the upcoming book.

Right. It ruined Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 AD.

But there is so much more to Mount Vesuvius than that.

Its Pompeii eruption was just the last (and the smallest) of four VEI 5-6 events over the last twenty thousand years (Scandone et al.), which is not a long span of geologic time.

Pompeii isn’t even the first human settlement that this volcano has wrecked but preserved.

Bronze Age neighbors fleeing Vesuvius’ wrath during the Avellino eruption left behind footprints, as well as their homes and belongings.
(Pierpaolo Petrone via Wikimedia, public domain.)

Long before Rome existed, one of those earlier massive eruptions entombed a Bronze Age village, as well as the remains of at least two people. Thousands of other neolithic settlers on this formerly rich and thriving plain fled, leaving their footprints and those of their livestock in that Avellino ash, just four miles from modern Naples — where the Avellino pyroclastic surge bed is almost 10 feet deep. (Mastrolorenzo et al.; Scandone et al.)

The land here must have been an ashy desert afterwards. Per Mastrolorenzo et al., no evidence of permanent dwellings within fifty miles of the volcano can be found for the next two hundred and thirty years!

In addition, Vesuvius has had five slightly smaller, but still violent eruptions (around VEI 4 to 4.5) over the same interval. The last one, in 1631, killed thousands of people with pyroclastic flows. (Brown et al.; Scandone et al.)

The volcano doesn’t just blow its top. Vesuvius sometimes exudes lava and has also hosted lava fountains and lakes. It may even have Strombolian activity (here’s the namesake, Stromboli Volcano, in action) or one-off Vulcanian pops like this one at Sakajurima. (MTU; Scandone et al.)

Mount Vesuvius sits in a very complex geological setting, and its behavior reflects that.

What perplexes volcanologists is that Vesuvius alternates long stretches of such low-level activity (for example, it did this between 1631 and 1944) with either centuries-long naps — dreaming for some 800 years before the Pompeii eruption — or a very violent blast. (De Vivo et al.; Scandone et al)

Some experts see a pattern to this. They describe eruption cycles at Vesuvius, spanning hundreds of years, that always start with a plinian blast. (MTU; De Vivo et al.)

Others don’t accept the idea of eruption cycles. (Scandone et al.)

Either way, it’s clear that Vesuvius is still dangerous despite having been quiet for almost eight decades now.

The longer this sleep lasts, the more likely Mount Vesuvius is to wake up one day with a bang that would be catastrophic for the millions of people who now live around it.

In the 1990s, therefore, volcanologists were thinking, not of Pompeii almost two thousand years ago, but of the here and now when they made Vesuvius a Decade Volcano.

The biggest problem with Vesuvius is obvious: How do you safely and quickly evacuate a modern city like Naples during a volcanic emergency?

Civil Protection (PDF download)

Experts had been wrestling with this for a long time. Work through the Decade Volcano program led to the first-ever Vesuvius disaster plan. (European Volcanological Society; Newhall)

This plan is regularly updated (its web page, last in 2018) as more scientific information becomes available.

Here is an ArcGIS multimedia story about Plan Vesuvius through 2016.

Will it work?

We’ll never know until Vesuvius stirs again.

Vacation Videos:

Tourists have been climbing up Vesuvius since at least the nineteenth century, even when it was erupting (yes, sometimes they died up there).

This family had great weather for their visit to the sleeping giant:

In a way, so did the Italian Alpine Club when they walked up into a summit snowstorm. It made for a wonder-filled epic video to remind us that, like all volcanoes when they are quiet, Mount Vesuvius is a natural refuge for wild life, even in a densely populated urban area:

Now here is Vesuvius, seen from an unusual angle. Notice how large the cone is and how it seems to be sitting inside something else:

That something else is Somma Volcano — the tall mountain that Pompeiians could see on the horizon until it unexpectedly exploded all over them and left a smoking cone that has since gradually built itself up into what we now call Vesuvius.

Technically, though, this is Somma-Vesuvius Volcano.

Finally, if you like technical writing and don’t mind vacationing back to a time when videos were books, Frank Perret’s description of the volcano and its 1906 eruption is superb (and a free eBook). There are photos, too. Here’s an excerpt:

“. . .the writer was . . . standing with a group of students upon the hard lava surface of the cone when this gradually increased in temperature until the heat underfoot was unbearable . On moving away , it was observed that a round area some 2 meters in diameter was becoming incandescent in full daylight , and this began to swell upward until , without a fracture , the material reached the point of complete fusion and a small , ephemeral lava stream started flowing down the slope . There was no explosive emission of gas , the fusion resulting from superheated lava beneath the surface.”


40.821° N, 14.426° E, in Naples District, Campania Region, Italy. The GVP Volcano Number is 211020.

Nearby Population:

Per the Global Volcanism Program, not counting tourists:

  • Within 5 km (3 miles): 19,162.
  • Within 10 km (6 miles): 675,705.
  • Within 30 km (19 miles): 3,907,941.
  • Within 100 km (62 miles): 6,009,961.

Current Status:

Normal, Aviation Code Green.

Here is the official bulletin on Vesuvius for November 2020. (PDF, Italian)


  • Eruption styles: As mentioned, Vesuvius is very versatile. Let’s watch a recreation of its most famous eruption (note: that’s someone’s best guess for Somma’s pre-eruption appearance; no one knows for sure what the old volcano looked like):

    With modern monitoring techniques, precursors to something like this would be detected early enough to put the evacuation plan into effect.


    Next is video of a smaller eruption: VEI 3, filmed in 1944. It has excellent shots of some types of low-level activity at Vesuvius — lava flows, ashfall, ground water effects — and the damage it causes:

    The narrator is correct in saying the volcano erupts every century, but only back until around 1631. Before then, Vesuvius slept for at least two hundred years. (De Vivo et al.; Global Volcanism Program)

  • Most recent eruption: 1944.
  • Past history: See the Global Volcanism Program for details. It’s a long list.


The Vesuvius Observatory, National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV).

INGV seismic monitoring.

Toulouse Volcanic Ash Advisory Center (VAAC) monitors the skies here.

Some webcams and satellite data

Featured image: PFMphotostock/Shutterstock

Sources: Note: Some of these are in Italian and were translated by either the browser or Google Translate.

Auger, E.; Gasparini, P.; Virieux, J.; and Zollo, A. 2001. Seismic evidence of an extended magmatic sill under Mt. Vesuvius. Science, 294(5546): 1510-1512.

Avvisati, G.; Sessa, E. B.; Colucci, O.; Marfè, B.; and others. 2019. Perception of risk for natural hazards in Campania Region (Southern Italy). International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, 40: 101164.

Baxter, P. J.; Aspinall, W. P.; Neri, A.; Zuccaro, G.; and others. 2008. Emergency planning and mitigation at Vesuvius: A new evidence-based approach. Journal of volcanology and geothermal research, 178(3): 454-473.

Bellucci, F.; Milia, A.; Rolandi, G.; and Torrente, M. M. 2006. Structural control on the Upper Pleistocene ignimbrite eruptions in the Neapolitan area (Italy): volcano tectonic faults versus caldera faults. In Developments in Volcanology (Vol. 9, pp. 163-180). Elsevier.

Brown, S.K.; Jenkins, S.F.; Sparks, R.S.J.; Odbert, H.; and Auker, M. R. 2017. Volcanic fatalities database: analysis of volcanic threat with distance and victim classification. Journal of Applied Volcanology, 6: 15.

Civil Protection. 2018. The updated National Vesuvius Plan. http://regione.campania.it/assets/documents/presentazione-piano-emergenza-vesuvio.pdf Last accessed July 18, 2020.

De Vivo, B.; Petrosino, P.; Lima, A.; Rolandi, G.; and Belkin, H. E. 2010. Research progress in volcanology in the Neapolitan area, southern Italy: a review and some alternative views. Mineralogy and Petrology, 99(1-2): 1-28.

Edwards, C. 2016. Italy puzzles over how to save 700,000 people from the wrath of Vesuvius. https://www.thelocal.it/20161013/evacuation-plan-for-vesuvius-eruption-naples-campania-will-be-ready-by-october Last accessed July 17, 2020.

European Volcanological Society. n. d. Decade volcano program 1990/2000. http://www.sveurop.org/gb/program/program.htm

INGV (National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology). n.d. Eruptive history of Vesuvius. http://www.ov.ingv.it/ov/it/vesuvio/storia-eruttiva-del-vesuvio.html

Klemetti, E. 2009. Volcano Profile: Mount Vesuvius. https://www.wired.com/2009/06/volcano-profile-mt-vesuvius/

___ 2015. Over 70 years of silence from Italy’s Vesuvius. https://www.wired.com/2015/03/70-years-silence-italys-vesuvius/

___. 2017. Ranking the 10 Most Dangerous Volcanoes, From Vesuvius to Santa Maria. https://www.wired.com/2017/04/worlds-10-dangerous-volcanoes-ranked/

Mastrolorenzo, G.; Petrone, P.; Pappalardo, L.; and Sheridan, M. F. 2006. The Avellino 3780-yr-BP catastrophe as a worst-case scenario for a future eruption at Vesuvius. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103(12): 4366-4370.

Mei, E. T. W.; Lavigne, F.; Picquout, A.; De Bélizal, E.; and others. 2013. Lessons learned from the 2010 evacuations at Merapi volcano. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 261: 348-365.

Michigan Tech (MTU) 1996. Vesuvio. http://www.geo.mtu.edu/volcanoes/boris/mirror/mirrored_html/VESUVIO.html

Newhall, C. 1996. IAVCEI/International Council of Scientific Union’s Decade Volcano projects: Reducing volcanic disaster. status report. US Geological Survey, Washington, DC. Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20041115133227/http://www.iavcei.org/decade.htm

Oppenheimer, C. 2011. Eruptions That Shook the World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=qW1UNwhuhnUC

Oregon State University: Volcano World. 2020. What’s the most recent eruption of Vesuvius and will it erupt again? http://volcano.oregonstate.edu/what’s-most-recent-eruption-vesuvius-and-will-it-erupt-again Last accessed July 18, 2020.

Peccerillo, A. 2001. Geochemical similarities between the Vesuvius, Phlegraean Fields and Stromboli Volcanoes: petrogenetic, geodynamic and volcanological implications. Mineralogy and Petrology, 73(1-3): 93-105.

Scandone, R.; Giacomelli, L.; and Speranza, F. F. 2006. The volcanological history of the volcanoes of Naples: a review. Developments in Volcanology, 9: 1-26.

Scarth, A. 2009. Vesuvius: A biography. Princeton University Press.

Solana, M. C.; Kilburn, C. R.; and Rolandi, G. 2008. Communicating eruption and hazard forecasts on Vesuvius, Southern Italy. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 172(3-4): 308-314.

Wikipedia (Italian). 2020. Vesuvio. https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vesuvio Last accessed July 17, 2020.

Wilson, G.; Wilson, T. M.; Deligne, N. I.; and Cole, J. W. 2014. Volcanic hazard impacts to critical infrastructure: A review. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 286: 148-182.

Zuccaro, G., and De Gregorio, D. 2019. Impact assessments in volcanic areas — The Vesuvius and Campi Flegrei cases studies. Annals of Geophysics, 62(1): 02.

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