Eruptions

Volcano Profile: Mt. Vesuvius

The latest in my Volcano Profiles Series, we turn to Europe and Vesuvius. You could fill many, many volumes with the works produced on Vesuvius since Roman times. This profile will barely scratch the surface when it comes to the vast geologic and human history surrounding the volcano, but it is a start. If you want to learn more about the archaeology surrounding Vesuvius, try visiting Blogging Pompeii.

VOLCANO PROFILE: MT. VESUVIUS

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Mt. Vesuvius in Italy. Image courtesy of Dario Leone.

  • Location: Italy
  • Height: 1,281 m / 4,203 ft
  • Geophysical location: The tectonics in the Mediterranean are very complex, with a multitude of microplates and collisionsal zones, but overall the existence of volcanism in Italy is due to the African plate suducting underneath the European plate. The subducting African plate is a small sliver that is the floor of the Adriatic Sea to the east of Italy and the volcanism in Italy likely stems from this subduction, producing an arc of volcanoes that includes Etna, Stromboli, Vulcano, Campei Phlegrei amongst other smaller features. Vesuvius is part of Calabrian arc that is divided into 5 zones: Tuscany, Latium, Campania, the Aeolian Islands and Sicily. Volcanism along these zones date back to at least 5 million years ago and Vesuvius is part of the Campania zone, which has produced significant eruptions from Vesuvius and the Campei Phlegrei in the last 25,000 years.
  • Type: Composite volcano
  • Hazards: Dominantly pyroclastic flows (nuee ardentes) and ash fall, combined with lahars and lava flows.
  • Monitoring: Vesuvius Observatory run by the’Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia (INGV), the first volcano observatory in the world (founded in 1841). There is both a basic english site and a more indepth italian site. A healthy seismic network exists on the volcano as part of the Observatory. There is also this fellow.
  • Summary: Mt. Vesuvius, overlooking modern Naples in Italy, might be the most famous volcano in the world. It is also considered the one of the most dangerous as well. More than three million people live near the active volcano that last erupted in 1944. The volcano could also be considered the birthplace of volcanology, with the famous letters (pdf link) of Pliny the Younger (the source of the term “plinian” for eruptive columns) that described many of the volcanic events during the famous 79 A.D. eruption of the volcano. That eruption was highly explosive – believed to be VEI ~5 – and buried the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, entombing the citizens of the city for thousands of years. This disaster killed many, but has also opened a unparalleled window into Roman culture and life.
  • Current status: According to the Vesuvious Observatory, the volcano is at Green/Base level of alert, indicating no signs of activity.


Paintng of Vesuvius (1774) by Joseph Wright of Derby.

  • Notable Recent Eruptions and History: The modern Vesuvius edifice has grown within the caldera of ancestral Monte Somma. This caldera has acted to channelize flows from Vesuvius towards the south and west from the modern volcano. In the last 17,000 years, Vesuvius has produced a multitude of eruptions, eight of which were large explosive eruptions. This includes the famous 79 A.D. eruption, along with large eruptions in 472, 685, 968, 1631, 1779, 1794, 1906 and 1944 amongst many others. The most recent activity at Vesuvius was in 1944, during a period of volcanism that latest almost 40 years from 1906. The largest eruption during this period was VEI ~3 and produced lava flows, pyroclastic flows, ash falls and deaths. It is most famously remembered as it was erupting as U.S. Forces arrived in Italy towards the end of World War II. The volcano likely destroyed more of the aircraft from the 340th Bombardment Group than any German air raid. There have been no eruptions at Vesuvius since 1944, one of the longer periods of quiet at the volcano in the last two thousand years – with some suggestion that the system may be entering a new phase of its life.


    Mt. Vesuvius erupting in 1944. It has now been 65 years since the last eruption of the volcano.

    Since 1944, there have been a number of seismic events at Vesuvius, suggesting the magma system is still active under the volcano, which is definitely not surprising. The most recent of these was in 1999, when seismicity was the highest it had been in 50 years. These earthquakes were at 6-km depth under the volcano and likely reflect magma moving into the lower reaches of the system. An interesting study in 1998 suggested a connection between large earthquakes in the Appennines, ~55 km to the north of the volcano. They found that earthquakes in these mountains tended to accompany eruptions of Vesuvius, with an eruption occuring within ten years after seismicity. They conclude that there is “two-way coupling zone, within which normal-faulting events promote eruptions and eruptions promote earthquakes“, which is a fascinating localized interconnectedness of tectonics and volcanism.

  • Mitigation:

    Projected areas effected by ash fall and pyroclastic flows from a future eruption of Vesuvius.
    The Italian government plans to evacuate 600,000 people from the area around Vesuvius if the volcano were to show signs of major activity again. An explosive eruption at Vesuvius could claim 16,000-20,000 lives without proper monitoring and mitigation. This, in itself, is an amazing number and shows the real danger posed by the volcano. The volcano was named one of the “Decade Volcanoes” as well. A commission appointed by Ministry of Defense in 1991 defined two hazard zones – a red zone where most everything would be destroyed by pyroclastic flows and a yellow zone that would be dominantly affected by ash fall (see above), lapilli and lahars. Since then, there have been many studies (pdf link) that have examined the challenge of volcanic hazard mitigation in such a densely populated area. The mitigation plan includes banning new construction in hazards, monetary bonuses for people to live outside the hazard zone, moving public offices outside the hazard zone, changes to the the transportation system to improve evacuation and an information campaign.

Selected resources of Vesuvius:

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Vesuvius as the sun rises. Image courtesy of Dario Leone, taken by Dionigi Caputo.

Comments

  1. #1 Dario Leone
    June 8, 2009

    “””An explosive eruption at Vesuvius could claim 16,000-20,000 lives without proper monitoring and mitigation.”””

    Honestly i think that 20’000 deaths is a very optimistic number.

    As you can see in my first photo and in a google earth image, within the area of potential piroclastic flows, live more than 600’000. It is not a joke.
    Second problem is: people continue to built new houses around the volcano.
    Third problem is: There is an evacuation plan, but…… streets are not ready for it! 600’000 people is a tremendous number and it is impossible to evacuate them in 2 weeks. And the most part of people don’t want to leave their houses.

    And this is the first problem :)
    The second and the bigger is not Vesuvius…… But an eruption o Campi Flegrei.

    Ps: The projected areas effected by ash fall seen on the map is based on the 79 A.D. eruprion’s deposits. But Other plinian eruptions showed that the usual deposit area is directed more in the direction of E – NE

  2. #2 Tim Stone
    June 8, 2009

    A tiny nit to point out. I do so only because I know you care about such things.

    “…during a period of volcanism that latest almost 40 years from 1906.” should read “…during a period of volcanism that lasted almost 40 years from 1906.”

  3. #3 Dario Leone
    June 8, 2009

    But the last cicle of eruptions started in 1631 with a subplinian eruprion and ended in 1944.
    The little eruption of 1906 was only one eruprion in this last cicle.

  4. #4 Dario Leone
    June 8, 2009

    But the last cicle of eruptions started in 1631 with a subplinian eruprion and ended in 1944.
    The little eruption of 1906 was only one eruprion in this last cicle.

  5. #5 Michael Simpson
    June 8, 2009

    Great article. I also enjoyed the links you provided, especially the one from the USAF bomber group stationed near the volcano. When I read that the last eruption was in 1944, I immediately wondered how it affected the invasion of Italy. The photographic archives were truly fascinating.

    Well, I hope that the government of Naples and Italy are truly confident in their ability to receive enough warning to evacuate the city. If it doesn’t, 20,000 casualties is going to happen.

  6. #6 mike don
    June 8, 2009

    The Japanese authorities hold annual (I think) evacuation rehearsals for the communities around Sakurajima; I wonder if anything of the sort has been done for the Vesuvius area? -an actual exercise rather than only a Plan.

    Admittedly, Sakurajima is an obviously-active threat while Vesuvius is (currently) quiet, but that only makes things worse, both in eruptive terms (unusually long repose periods are more worrying than sustained moderate activity) and psychologically, since only people aged seventy or over will now have any personal memories of Vesuvius as an ACTIVE volcano

  7. #7 Perry
    June 11, 2009

    Thanks very much for a most informative article. However, I suspect the Camorra are more of a worry in the minds of the Neapolitans than Vesuvius. A fantastic view at http://maps.google.co.uk/maps?q=naples+italy&oe=utf-8&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a&um=1&ie=UTF-8&split=0&gl=uk&ei=OsMwSuviC5OsjAeVjfXCBw&sa=X&oi=geocode_result&ct=title&resnum=1

  8. #8 Dario Leone
    June 11, 2009

    The Camorra is why people continue to build under the volcano….

    They continue to built…. and to gain moneys from people go there to live

  9. #9 peter mc
    June 15, 2009

    Type: Composite volcano

    With some of the finest pizzerias and best expresso you’ll ever find around its foot. Great post, I have nothing to technical to add except that having spent time in Naples, I cannot imagine the mayhem that would ensue. It’s bedlam at the best of times.

  10. #10 Dario Leone
    June 15, 2009

    Happy to know that someone enjoy a visit in my city, with his food, art, landscapes and wonderful volcanoes :)

  11. #11 Markk
    June 15, 2009

    Great stage up Vesuvius this year in the Giro d’Italia. It shows how woven into culture these things can be.

  12. #12 lily
    November 26, 2009

    psehyfspaiuefhwep

  13. #13 sophia greco
    December 7, 2009

    i love your website it gives me all the info

  14. #14 joel denoyer
    January 28, 2010

    i think that the volcano will erupt in the next 10 years and i hope it does it would be so cool.

  15. #15 World famous volcanoes
    March 8, 2010

    This is probably the worlds best known volcano. As well as visiting Pompeii and seeing the damage a volcano can do to a city, Vesuvius is an impressive backdrop for any trip. It’s also relatively easy to get to, you can drive up to within 200 metre

  16. #16 Cruise
    March 31, 2010

    Well, I hope that the government of Naples and Italy are truly confident in their ability to receive enough warning to evacuate the city. If it doesn’t, 20,000 casualties is going to happen.

  17. #17 cheeks loks♥
    May 28, 2010

    this vOlcanO is DANGEOUSS! :0

  18. #18 Arches National Park
    June 19, 2010

    As you can see in my first photo and in a google earth image, within the area of potential piroclastic flows, live more than 600’000. It is not a joke.
    Second problem is: people continue to built new houses around the volcano.
    Third problem is: There is an evacuation plan, but…… streets are not ready for it! 600’000 people is a tremendous number and it is impossible to evacuate them in 2 weeks. And the most part of people don’t want to leave their houses.

  19. #19 Sledge
    September 29, 2010

    I was just watching a documentary on the History Channel about Mount Vesuvius. I can’t believe how much it has changed since the early ’70s. When I was in the navy the ship would visit Naples. On one visit I took tours of Pompey and Vesuvius. I’ve got pictures of us riding a ski lift to get to the top and then going down into the crater and posing for pictures at the bottom with the steam vents. Now they say the crater is a 1,000 feet deep and collapsing on itself. The lava flow from the 40′s was all black and rocky back then. Now its covered with wild flowers and plants. Yes, the earth changes.

  20. #20 mafia 2 crack
    October 17, 2010

    also I wouldn’t agree fully on what you just wrote since its kinda wrong

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