Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Vesuvius - Eruption disruption

Disaster management Living in the shadow of two live volcanoes, Neapolitans are playing Russian roulette with nature.

It is just about impossible to imagine the terror that must have engulfed those living among the perfumed lemon groves and in the picturesque seaside villages south east of Naples when scorching pyroclastic flows swept down the steep slopes of Vesuvius in 1631.

Some 5,000 people were burned alive. Yet people returned soon after the disaster, re-building and cultivating the land anew.

The cycle of volcanic eruption, devastation of communities in its shadow, and re-colonisation of Vesuvius has been played out repeatedly since the Roman towns of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplonti and Stabia were buried in 79AD.

When Vesuvius last erupted in 1944, lava flowed into the village of San Sebastiano forcing inhabitants to abandon their houses and flee. But within a decade that same 50km of coast between Naples and Sorrento and the area to the east of Vesuvius were being developed as never before.

There are now approximately 600,000 people living at Vesuvius' foot, says Lucia Civetta, director of the Vesuvius Observatory in Naples. Sandwiched between the volcano and the sea, population density is high. And the volcano is far from extinct.

There is still fumeralogical and seismic activity. It is not a question of whether Vesuvius will erupt again, merely when.

Yet amazingly, Civetta notes, '10-15 years ago, only a few people realised that living at the foot of Vesuvius was high risk'.

Vesuvius is the quintessential volcano. Eruption tends to be plinian, with magma and gases pushed up from a chamber some 10km beneath the earth's surface through a single large fissure.

'Vesuvius erupts explosively, ' explains Civetta. 'A dense mixture of super-heated gas, liquid and magma rises in the atmosphere at high speed and mixes with surrounding air, producing the eruptive column up to 50km high.'

Ash and dust from the column is blown eastward by prevailing winds and is typically carried over 40km. In the past ash has fallen in densities as great as 40kg/m 2, crushing buildings and smothering everything else. Volcanic activity leads to heavy rains as huge amounts of vapour condense. This causes mud flows, which can be particularly severe to the north of Vesuvius.

'If the density of the eruptive column is greater than that of the atmosphere, though, it can not rise but collapses, ' Civetta continues. The resulting pyroclastic cloud then flows down the slopes of the volcano at speeds that can exceed 100km/h. With a temperature of 500¦C or more it incinerates everything in its path.

Civetta's concern is not with Vesuvius alone. The western part of Naples, the Pozzuoli district that is home to 500,000 people, is built on the Campi Flegrei caldera - a huge volcanic depression.

Calderas are formed when the roof of a shallow magma chamber collapses following eruptions in which huge quantities of magma - up to a few hundred cubic kilometres - are emitted.

Campi Flegrei's magma chamber is far larger than that of Vesuvius and far nearer the surface - only 4km down. Over time it has refilled resulting in two periods of ground resurgence, from 196972 and 1982-84. In Pozzuoli harbour, where impact of the resurgence was greatest, a combined 3.5m of uplift was measured.

'There is a very large question over how many more increases in ground level can take place before fractures occur, allowing magma to rise to the surface, ' Civetta frowns. 'Campi Flegrei last erupted in 1538, which makes it the more likely of the two volcanoes to erupt next. It has been resting now for about as long as it ever has in the past.

Any future eruption is likely to be explosive.'

Since it first became active 37,000 years ago, Campi Flegrei has erupted at between 50 and 60 different locations. It is impossible to predict where magma will next burst through the earth's crust. But when it does, the Observatory has calculated Campi Flegrei will affect an area roughly double that in danger from Vesuvius.

A large shoulder of volcanic rock or tuff separating Pozzuoli from the rest of Naples will save most of the city's population from pyroclastic flows. But prevailing winds will swamp the whole of Naples in thousands of tons of solid magma, dust and ash.

There is as yet no emergency plan in place to deal with an eruption of Campi Flegrei. But anxiety over the rapid pace of urbanisation combined with memories of Vesuvius' last eruption has led to development of an evacuation plan for the area east of Naples. Work started in 1993 and a final strategy is to be presented to Italy's government early next year.

Working with the Department for Civil Protection, Vesuvius Observatory has calculated that clearing people from the area around Vesuvius, using increased frequency services on the Sorrento-Naples rail line, laying on special buses, and requisitioning passenger ferries for sea evacuation, will take seven days.

'Most people would leave by train, ' says Civetta. 'We would be able to get people out of the danger zone faster with road improvements. There is essentially just one road out of the area which gets extremely congested every day anyway, ' she adds. Doubling the highway from Naples to Salerno has been proposed but the project would be difficult to achieve in an area 'which is densely populated and the morphology is so steep. It is difficult to go anywhere without tunnelling into the volcano or falling into the sea'.

The 18 communes in the affected area have been 'twinned' with other regions in Italy where evacuees will be put up if disaster strikes. Efforts are now focused mainly on raising awareness of the evacuation procedure. The heads of each commune have been briefed to spread information and there are annual trial runs - the last, in October, involved 1,000 people.

Scaling up operations to cope with 60,000 will require a different order of organisation, Civetta admits. 'The purpose of the trials is to attract the attention of the whole community to the problem of evacuation.'

The Observatory and Department of Civil Protection have put in place a two stage warning system - 'attention' and 'prealarm'. In the first, 'attention', phase local government puts commne heads, police, army and other emergency services on standby. 'Pre-alarm' is a declaration of a state of emergency precipitating evacuation.

'Earthquakes and ground deformation take place over the course of a few months before an eruption, which theoretically gives us warning, ' says Civetta.

Vesuvius is monitored constantly with GPS, gravitometric, electronic distance measurement, tiltmetric, geochemical, seismic and radio monitors.

Total stations are trained on its slopes and tide gauges are stationed along the shore to check for ground level changes.

To avoid overloading slender transport corridors it is imperative that evacuation is not a last minute rush, Civetta notes. But declaring a state of emergency more than a week in advance of an eruption does create significant risk of a false alarm.

Evacuation will cost the local economy dearly - it is driven by agriculture and tourism, industries that can ill afford to lose a week or two of production and revenue. If the area is cleared and no eruption takes place, pacifying the locals and winning back trust in the evacuation strategy will be as difficult as triumphing over the volcano itself, Civetta concludes.

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Please note comments made online may also be published in the print edition of New Civil Engineer. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.