Chapter 1: Mount Vesuvius


“Chapter 1?” Please see note at end of post.

Yes, this is the Pompeii killer and those are suburban lights on its flanks.

Not all of them are legal, but there they are.

What if the volcano erupts?

Well, since the Vesuvius cone is geologically young and active (although quiet since 1944), it’s probably a matter of “when” and “how big,” not “if.”

Every volcanologist in the world wants to make sure that Vesuvius doesn’t earn the sad title of “Naples killer” with its next big eruption.

But it’s not easy, turning that wish into reality.

What is Mount Vesuvius?

Technically, it is the “Big Cone” of another, larger volcano.

If you check out this tourist’s view across Naples Bay (from the Sorrento Peninsula, perhaps), you’ll see how Vesuvius seems to be sitting inside something else.



That something else is Somma Volcano, the granddaddy of Mount Vesuvius.

Somma goes back to Pleistocene times and used to be a big shield volcano until, for unknown reasons, things started getting cataclysmic some 20 thousand years ago when Vesuvius arrived on the scene.

Now, after a series of huge explosions ripped through the old edifice long ago, only Somma’s northern flank – the saddle bump on the left in that image up above – still stands tall above the Campania Plain.

The trouble-making cone that we laypeople call Vesuvius is the bump on the right.

When the experts are talking formally, everyone from rockhounds to the researchers at Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV) refers to this dangerous geologic structure on the edge of Naples as the Somma-Vesuvius volcanic complex (SVVC).

When?

That’s a good question. In order to predict the volcano’s next move, scientists are trying to learn everything they can about it.

The history they’ve uncovered so far is not encouraging. Basically, modern Naples has grown up around a violent, moody stone giant, asleep for the moment, that predates the Roman Empire.

Somma is huge, but it doesn’t actually do anything at present except host that Gran Cono, a/k/a Mount Vesuvius.

Vesuvius itself is terrible.


Figure 1, Linde et al., CC BY 4.0. See link for description.


Here is a mean-looking overhead view of the SVVC from Linde et al., who also provide its origin story (I’ve added two links to their text, plus some translation of the scientific terms into plain English):

“The history of the SVVC began 0.3–0.5 million years ago [300,000 to 500,000 years ago] and is characterized by periods of closed conduit rest [no eruptions] lasting up to 1000 years that are interrupted by plinian and subplinian explosive eruptions…In the last 22 ka [thousand years], four plinian caldera-forming eruptions (22 ka Pomici di Base, 9.7 ka Mercato, 4.3 ka Avellino, and AD 79 Pompeii) and at least three major subplinian eruptions occurred (17.6 ka Pomici Verdoline, AD 472 Pollena, and AD 1631)…[and Somma’s] summit collapse[d.] [T]hat modified the dimensions and shape of the Mt. Somma caldera, presently characterized by steep walls in the northern sector and a gentle morphology in the southern one [per INGV and the Global Volcanism Program (GVP), the Gran Cono took on its present shape during a particularly intense VEI 4 eruption in 1906]…Since the AD 1631 subplinian eruption, preceded by about 500 years of rest…Vesuvius entered in an open conduit phase that lasted until March 1944 when, after a violent Strombolian eruption, the volcano entered in a new closed conduit quiescence.”

As you might guess, the tricky part now is deciding whether these past eight decades of silence mean that Somma-Vesuvius has settled into another centuries-long nap (sweet, if true) or that it’s building up for another huge eruption.

Literally lighting the bay, as in 1771. (Image: Wikimedia, public domain)

In between these two activity extremes, when its conduit is open Vesuvius can also exude damaging lava flows and has even lit up the Bay of Naples occasionally with impressive lava fountains. (MTU; Scandone et al., 2006)

Such eruptions are too often damaging and deadly, but they do fall within the range of what we think of as “normal” volcanism.

After this goes on for a while, say, from 1631 to 1944, people start thinking of the fire mountain as a scary but lovable (and lucrative) mascot. (Scarth)

They forget that Vesuvius is also capable of real wrath-of-God stuff.

And then it happens (the last time was Pompeii).

This volcano’s moody behavior reflects the geological complexity of its setting.

Somma-Vesuvius sits in a zone where plate tectonics is slowly, inexorably driving the African continent into Eurasia, closing the Mediterranean Sea along the way.

Subduction and other processes related to this ongoing continental collision keep all of Campania’s volcanoes – notably, Campi Flegrei and Ischia, as well as Vesuvius – alive and kicking. (Carlino; De Natale et al.; Milia et al.; Turco et al.)

Unfortunately, studies have not led to a consensus on why Vesuvius alternates long stretches of low-level activity (for example, between 1631 and 1944) with:

  • Either lengthy quiet periods — dreaming for some 800 years, for instance, before the Pompeii eruption. (De Vivo et al.)
  • Or with a very violent blast. (Scandone et al., 2006)

Scientists really need to know that and other details of how Vesuvius works in order to help civil authorities protect the volcano’s human neighbors.

One popular hypothesis is that Vesuvius has eruption cycles, spanning hundreds of years, and that these always start with a plinian blast. (MTU; De Vivo et al.)

Cool! Well, not the plinian part, but cycles can be predicted, if they’re well understood.

However, it’s possible to interpret Vesuvian activity patterns in other ways. That is why some volcanologists don’t recognize eruption cycles here. (Scandone et al., 2006)

Bottom line: No one really can say when Somma-Vesuvius will erupt again.

This is one of the most heavily monitored volcanoes in the world, though.

And the Decade Volcano program’s main achievement here was the development of a Naples emergency plan in 1995 to cope with the next eruption at Vesuvius, whenever it occurs. (Newhall)

The current Plan Vesuvio (2014-2019) is based on an assumption that monitoring data will give 72 hours’ warning of an impending 1631-style subplinian eruption (original 1631 link, in Italian).

The plan has many critics. (Barnes; Chester et al., 2002; Mastrolorenzo et al., 2006; Scarth)

Some disagree with the timing, saying eruptions can’t be so precisely predicted.

Others are concerned that the selected worst-case scenario is an event smaller than the Pompeii plinian eruption or the earlier and even larger Avellino blast.

Which brings up the question…

How big?

Since we will be looking at the Pompeii eruption in the next section, here are:

That account by Pliny the Younger – who was seventeen years old when the volcano went off and who lost his uncle, Pliny the Elder, in that eruption – is where the term plinian comes from. (Scandone et al., 2019)

It’s also the first known recorded observation of an eruption, so in a sense, Mount Vesuvius is where modern volcanology began. (Doronzo et al.; Klemetti, 2010; MTU)

If they were to base Plan Vesuvio on the plinian eruption of AD 79 (after 800 years of quiet), emergency managers today would need to clear out all of Naples metro – almost 4 million people – in a matter of hours.

An evacuation on that scale has never been attempted in modern times.

However, in Vesuvius’ subplinian 1631 eruption (following a 500-year sleep), no caldera formed; the plume wasn’t quite as high as in AD 79; and most pyroclastic flows didn’t run out beyond the volcano’s slopes, although a few did reach the sea.

No one at the time expected pyroclastic flows – which are unsurvivable – and more than 4,000 people died in them. (Brown et al.)

Now that this hazard is better understood, Plan Vesuvio evacuates hundreds of thousands of Neapolitans out of the 1631 pyroclastic flow/heavy ashfall zone in 72 hours.

That’s very good, and as Scarth writes, “In theory, the theory should work.”

But is it enough?

The continuing debate over Plan Vesuvio makes more sense if we can get a feel for the dangers that people are likely to encounter here – or at any volcano – during an eruption.

It’s possible to do that at Vesuvius, more so than at other volcanoes, because the AD 79 eruption’s effects are sometimes personalized in plaster casts of victims, while parts of the Roman world that Vesuvius buried have been found surprisingly well preserved.

It’s probably the closest we’ll ever get to the experience of time travel in real life.

The drawback to this Pompeii approach is its focus on just two of the volcanic hazards here: heavy ashfall and pyroclastic flows.

Earthquakes, lava flows, and mudflows (lahars) are also serious threats. But we can explore those in detail at other Decade Volcanoes.

Vesuvius is the place to look at the basic issue of volcano hazard management, which is this: Disaster hit those people unexpectedly – are we better prepared for it now?

Pompeii



Today, Napoli Centrale train station, in downtown Naples, is just eight miles from Vesuvius. Sprawling around that station for almost 700 square miles is the European Union’s fifth most densely populated urban area.

During its most famous eruption, Roman-era Vesuvius took out not only Pompeii but also the towns of Herculaneum, Oplontis, and Stabiae – as well as pretty much everything else within seven miles of the crater. (Doronzo et al.)

There was a lot to take out: towns, villas, seaside resorts, a dense infrastructure network, and, of course, the major regional port and vacation spot for wealthy Romans – Pompeii, about seven miles from Vesuvius.

I got that information from the most thorough and up-to-date source I could find – Doronzo et al. – and will continue to use them for this section, except as noted.

Most of us know the basic story here, but there is one new thing to mention: the date.

You might have seen that given as August 24th.

More findings at Pompeii and analysis of Pliny’s description suggest that the eruption actually happened in autumn, not during the summer.

It’s not definitely established yet, but both the GVP and Doronzo et al. tentatively go with October 24, 79 AD, for the eruption’s start, not August 24th as previously understood.

Let’s use that date, too.

As this Pompeii reconstruction video shows, Somma-Vesuvius probably looked a little different back then, covered with vegetation, including vinyards, and with the cone taller and flattened on top.



Yes, we saw this here at the blog a few Sundays ago after the Alpine Club summited Vesuvius in a snowstorm — I was writing this part of the chapter that week and had just found the video. But as you’ll read below, the relatively deserted streets and homes shown in this reconstruction might be more accurate than intended!


Nothing geologically unusual had happened up there for eight centuries.

Visiting Greeks might have witnessed an eruption, but Somma-Vesuvius was green and quiet when first the Etruscans (524 BC) and then the Romans (about 310 BC) moved into Campania felix, the “fortunate country.” (Carlino; Italian Wikipedia)

The irregular mountain summit seven miles away was a nice backdrop for Pompeii after that settlement was built on an old Vesuvian lava flow near what was then the Sarno River’s mouth.

Pompeii became a municipium in 27 BC and soon grew into a port city, exporting wine to Gaul and importing various commodities. (Italian Wikipedia)

Around the start of the first millennium, this part of Campania was also a trendy getaway for the rich.

They built lavish villas and vacation homes all over the countryside, as well as in Pompeii and in the seaside town of Oplontis, where some of them located their rustic luxury properties right on the slopes of Vesuvius to get a spectacular view of the Bay of Naples.

Of course, earthquakes are common in Campania. A very powerful temblor in 62 AD, centered in nearby Stabiae, heavily damaged Herculaneum and Pompeii.

Afterwards, Rome sent teams to repair Pompeii’s forum (Luke), and this work was still in progress 17 years later — yes, according to a reliable source (that I can’t find again), authorities were investigating corruption charges about the delay — when the first white clouds of steam appeared above Vesuvius early in the afternoon of October 24. (Scandone et al., 2019)

Molten rock and ground water had just met, causing phreatomagmatic blasts that unplugged the volcano’s conduit.

Long before October 24th, a magma chamber below the SVVC had been refreshed by pulses of hot material coming up from the depths, most recently twenty years earlier. (Doronzo et al.)

This pressurized the chamber, as well as melting its contents.

Rock cracked and about 4 cubic kilometers of buoyant magma had then pushed its way up through the edifice, causing earthquakes that Pliny the Younger and others in the region had noted during the weeks leading up to the eruption.

At the same time, magmatic gases that had stayed dissolved while the molten rock was deep in the earth now started coming out of solution, just like CO2 bubbles out of soda when you open the bottle.

This bubbling increased the speed of that rising melt, as well as its pressure on the rock walls.

More gases came out of solution as magma got closer to the surface; more speed, more pressure against the conduit’s cap, more gas bubbles – at some point, eruption became inevitable.

By the time phreatomagmatic explosions broke the plug in Vesuvius’ throat, that rising magma was a rock foam. (Oppenheimer)

It now blasted out of the newly opened vent at more than 200 mph, sucking in surrounding air and heating it up to build a convection column that shot 10 to 19 miles into the sky before spreading out into an ashy umbrella. (Oppenheimer; Scandone et al., 2019)

MapMaster, via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.

This awful spectacle continued for the rest of the afternoon and on into the evening, with prevailing winds blowing the zone of heaviest ashfall southeast of the volcano, over Pompeii. (Scandone et al., 2019)

That city would get almost 10 feet of ash before this phase of the eruption ended, but just a few hours after it began, enough ash had accumulated – about 2 feet of finely powdered rock – to start breaking Pompeii’s roofs with its weight.

There were people inside many of those buildings.

Thus far, archaeologists have found the remains of 394 individuals under the ruins.

Around 8 p.m., chemistry of the erupting material changed. In practical terms, this made the eruption column unstable.

After initially pulsing up to an altitude of around 22 miles, the column of fresher material now had a series of partial collapses.

These in turn generated pyroclastic flows overnight that were much more extensive than those of 1631 would be.

The first flow hit Herculaneum and was probably the one that killed all those people in the boat houses. (Scandone et al., 2019)

It didn’t get to Pompeii.

Neither did the flows that destroyed Oplontis and its surrounding rustic villas. (Scandone et al., 2019)

Around 6:30 on the morning of the 25th, a pyroclastic flow just brushed Pompeii’s northwestern walls.

When the plinian column collapsed completely, about an hour later, it generated a flow that entered Pompeii but didn’t do much damage.

The worst was yet to come.

Up at Vesuvius, the emptied magma chamber began to fall in on itself, forming a caldera – the vast bowl-shaped depression that today’s Gran Cono sits in.

This caldera formation, which took several minutes, terrified Pliny the Younger, his mother, and other refugees trying to flee Cape Miseno, across the bay from Vesuvius, and it generated strong earthquakes, tsunami in the Bay of Naples, a brief new eruption column, and then the killer pyroclastic flow.

That one, big as it was, was almost spent by the time it reached Pompeii after travelling those seven miles from the volcano.

It entered from the northwest and ran out of energy before reaching the city’s southern walls – but not before its heat had instantly killed at least 650 survivors of the eruption’s earlier events. (Mastrolorenzo et al., 2010)

We have met many of these men, women, and children through the medium of plaster casts.



That was the end of their story, but Vesuvius continued to rumble on for a few more days. Pompeii disappeared under another 20 feet or so of pyroclastic deposits and was not seen by human eyes again until the 1700s.

How many died overall?

According to Scandone et al. (2019), probably not the tens of thousands that are sometimes quoted.

Many people had left the area after the big quake in 62 AD. It’s possible that Pompeii was more of a reconstruction zone than a bustling urban center at that point.

Scandone et al. (2019) report that the remains of about 1,900 people have been found thus far in Pompeii, Herculaneum, Stabiae, and at other sites.

They also suspect that Vesuvius might have claimed an additional thousand lives that terrible day.

These numbers will probably change as excavations continue.

Are we ready?

That question, at any volcano, is unanswerable until emergency measures are tested in an actual eruption. (As we’ll see in another chapter, this did happen at Indonesia’s Mount Merapi in 2010.)

It involves factors that go far beyond the scope of this book.


Figure 4, Carlino, CC BY 4.0.


If we apply this volcano monitoring graphic to the hypothetical onset of a new Vesuvian eruption, it’s clear that modern monitoring (jargon alert) very likely would detect the precursors – warnings that no one knew how to interpret in AD 79 or 1631 – early enough to get people out of harm’s way.

That’s the relatively easy part.

What volcanologists cannot yet spot is the point when an eruption becomes inevitable.

That’s really important to know because volcanoes often have “failed eruptions.”

It is quite possible that Vesuvius (or any fire mountain) might show every technical indication of an eruption, triggering emergency plans, and then the rising magma would stall out, never reaching the surface.

If that happened after Plan Vesuvio had been called, those hundreds of thousands of evacuees, and millions of other frightened Neapolitans, and much of the rest of the world outside Academia would never believe any scientist ever again. (Let’s not even think about accidents, injuries and evacuation-related deaths, looting and other social breakdown, and all the resulting lawsuits.)

The experts really do need to find out how to identify the point of no return for an impending eruption!

At the same time, <layperson opinion> it could helpfully reduce liability fears that otherwise might hinder volcanologists’ decision-making capability on alerts, if — bear with me, please — civil authorities did not mandate evacuation but did inform the public in detail of the volcano emergency, including uncertainty parameters with each bulletin, and did make transport out of the danger zone as easy and high-capacity as possible.

People facing responsibility for their own safety tend to act responsibly under pressure, which might improve evacuation conditions and reduce general panic. After all, we’re talking here of pressure that made even the phlegmatic Romans of Pliny’s time freak out.

And die, too. Lots of them died.

That’s what everyone wants not to happen to Neapolitans today.

Can that be better achieved, in whatever time we have before one of the Naples-area volcanoes awakens, by public education about twinning, which bus to take when, etc., or by constantly reinforcing how to act when there’s threat of an eruption or the actual thing, suddenly?</layperson opinion>

There’s another problem at Vesuvius, too. It includes, but isn’t limited to, the existence of those lights on the volcano’s slopes.

Modern Naples is especially vulnerable to volcanic disaster for many social, political, and economic reasons, summed up in Table 4 by Chester et al (2002).

In Section 6 of his paper, Carlino gives a good review of all the ways that coping with risks at Vesuvius is a “grueling challenge.”

Yet, as part of the Decade Volcano program here in 1995, decisionmakers had to choose between being proactive or letting the volcano dictate future events.

They chose to act before the volcano awakens – a courageous and helpful decision that is still in force now, almost thirty years later.

Eruption forecasting comes with many uncertainties, but at least there is an emergency plan for this volcano now.

That is much more than the people of Campania have ever had going for them before.

Only time will tell how effectively it can help everyone when the Gran Cono once again begins to fume and glow.

Stats

Location: 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 monthly bulletin website (Italian).

Biggest Recorded Event: The Pompeii eruption is the largest one on record, but Mastrolorenzo et al. (2006) note that the Bronze Age Avellino blast was even bigger, and that the formerly lush Campania Plain remained uninhabited afterward for more than two centuries.

Monitoring:

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

INGV seismic monitoring of Campania’s volcanoes. (Italian)

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

Some webcams and satellite data.


“Chapter 1?”

Well, I was saving this to open the revised Decade Volcano eBook with but was embarrassed to discover recently that I had missed a Sunday Morning Volcano post two weeks ago. This was the reason — I must have been all volcanoed out, having just finished this (have spent the summer revising the two Italian volcano chapters — there’s so much information on them!). Anyway, sorry I let you Sunday Morning Volcano fans down and hope this (with a few touches that the blog format allows) compensates for it. Thank you so much for your interest and support (By the way, when the revised book does come out, I’ll be taking down all these shared chapter posts except Nyiragongo, which the whole world should hear about all the time.)


Featured image: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock


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