Pompeii’s Mount Vesuvius is very much an active volcano and will erupt again, according to many geologists and volcanologists studying the volcano. The mountain’s last eruption was in 1944 and has erupted over three dozen times since the devastating explosion in 79 A.D. Vesuvius remains to be one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world. In 1780 B.C. the volcano spewed millions of tons of superheated lava, ash and rocks over 20 miles high into the skies, known as an Avellino eruption.
In 63 A.D. the area known as Campania had endured an immense earthquake that today scientists say would have given the inhabitants of Pompeii a thunderous warning of the ruination to come. Yet the population grew in numbers each year, as it was an ideal location right off the shores of the Bay of Naples with beautiful, warm weather.
Volcanic eruptions that cause high-altitude eruption columns and cover vast areas with ash is called a Plinian eruption. Dubbed from Pliny the Younger, who documented the explosion in letters to the historian Tacitus, was the first person to ever describe in written detail the accounts of an eruption in history. The letters account the details of the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder, as he tried to rescue the citizens in the very early stages of the eruption.
“As I understand it, ” he writes, “his breathing was obstructed by the dust-laden air, and his innards…simply shut down.” Witnessing the event from across the bay he describes ashes billowing upwards, with rock and pumice bursting upwards in the sky. The blast also shot scorching hot volcanic gases so high that they could have been seen for hundreds of miles.
Once cooled, everything started to fall onto the earth below, starting with the fine-grained ash, followed by pumice and other rocks. At this point the inhabitants still had time to flee amid the destruction and those who remained to stay were sealing their fates. Escaping by sea was still a treacherous ordeal. Pliny writes, “Ash was falling onto the ships now, darker and denser…Now it was bits of pumice, and rocks that were blackened and burned and shattered by fire.”
More ash fell, making it difficult to breathe, buildings to topple and then a then a flow of 100-miles-per-hour crushed rock and extremely hot, poisonous gas (known as a “pyroclastic surge”) slammed down the mountainside and buried everything in its route.
After the eruption, by the next day the whole of Pompeii was buried beneath the volcanic ash weighing millions of tons. Over 2,000 people perished. Even for centuries, the neighboring towns of Herculaneum and Stabiae remained like ghost towns.
Today there are over 3 million people who live within 20 miles of the volcano’s crater. As seen with Pompeii, when Mount Vesuvius erupts again, the death toll will be on a massive scale and would wipe out many cities, including Naples. Though its last explosion in 1944 killed only 12 people, research shows that the volcano’s next eruption will not be as docile. It is for this reason that the Vesuvius Observatory monitors its seismic activity and gas emissions on a 24 hour basis so that evacuation of the area could commence as soon as humanly possible.
When Pompeii was rediscovered in 1748, archaeologists were amazed at their findings. Most of the buildings were intact and they even found loaves of bread and jars of preserved fruit.
Though very few skeletal remains were found, they did notice something incredulous. Their were pockets of air encased in all the ash and debris that formed and hardened around the victims, leaving a mold for the excavators to pour plaster into giving us the amazing plaster mummies we see today. The excavation of Pompeii has been ongoing for almost 3 centuries.
Though many people believe that the 1944 explosion ended a hazardous cycle that began back in 1631, make no mistake that Mount Vesuvius which destroyed Pompeii will erupt again as all active volcanos do. Experts say it would be an unprecedented catastrophe due to the millions of people who live in the ‘red zone’. It isn’t a probability; it is a certainty that volcanologists say could happen any given day.
By Derik L. Bradshaw