My Top 10 Science Stories of 2006 – #10 – Vesuvius Erupted 2,000 Years Before Pompeii

#10

ARCHEOLOGY

2,000 Years Before Pompeii, Destruction on a Grander Scale

By Davide Castelvecchi
The area around modern Naples has been the setting of more than one Hollywood-grade disaster before. In AD 79, Mount Vesuvius famously laid waste to the posh Roman vacation towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. This March, a team of Italian and U.S. scientists and archeologists revealed that Vesuvius has caused even greater destruction in an earlier eruption, about 3,780 years ago. A similar eruption, if it took place in what is today one of Italy’s three major urban areas, would cause a catastrophe comparable to hurricane Katrina.

The team’s excavations, 10 miles north-east of the volcano, have unearthed the frozen snapshots of a hasty evacuation. Inside buried huts, pottery had been abandoned on dinner tables, as if occupants had left without finishing their meals. The remains of a woman were curled up as she was probably dying of asphyxiation — a scene reminiscent of many Pompeii finds. On beds of cooling ash, panicked people and domestic animals had left thousands of footprints all heading in the same direction: away from the volcano.

Back then, the area was dotted with small bronze-age villages, and was much less heavily populated than in Roman times — after all, the more primitive agriculture of the time could not sustain more than one person per hectare of cultivated land. The eruption turned it into a desert. It would be more than two centuries, the team found, before new settlements would start to appear.

While it looks peaceful now, Vesuvius has had periodic outbursts of activity, and it will erupt again. Its surroundings are home today to more than three million people. Naples’ suburbs have even crept all the way up on the mountain’s flanks, in open disregard of regulations. Italian authorities have long been making plans for a mass evacuation; scientists hope that the mountain would start giving warning signs weeks in advance, which might enough to avoid too much loss of life — assuming that the population cooperates. But, the authors of the new research wrote in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, their latest finds show that Vesuvius is capable of much more violent eruptions than previously thought. The authorities should take note. “Planning also including a relatively rare worst-case scenario is a difficult but necessary task for civil protection,” the authors wrote.

Even if authorities do everything right, and everyone manages to flee to safety, the economic and social implications of burying one of Italy’s three major urban areas under one meter of lapilli could be felt for decades to come.

Update January 10: Vesuvius Escape Plan “Insufficient” (from BBC News).

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