Mount Vesuvius, the only active volcano on the European mainland, has produced some of the largest and most destructive eruptions on the continent. It is situated on the west coast of Italy and overlooks the Bay of Naples, bringing the major city within its potentially hazardous sphere of threat. Vesuvius sits in the crater of the ancient and defunct Somma volcano and last erupted in 1944. Vesuvius is art of the Campanian arc of volcanoes that grew over the subduction zone created by the collision of the African and Eurasian plates. The arc spans the length of the Italian peninsula and contains many several spouters like Mount Etna, the Phlegrean Fields, Stromboli, and Vulcano. Most of the lava from Vesuvius forms into andesite, a semi-volcanic rock, roughly half composed of silica. Andesite lava is prone to eruptions on a large scale, making Vesuvius both deadly and unpredictable.
4. Historical Role
Mount Vesuvius has erupted eight times in the last seventeen millennia. One of Vesuvius’ best known eruptions in the ancient world occurred in 78 A.D., an event estimated to have killed more than 16,000 people in the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Many citizens of Pompeii suffocated on the ash in the air, which covered them completely and solidified into casts, which preserved the shapes of their bodies, including facial features. The casts are on display in the ruins of Pompeii. Since 79 A.D., Vesuvius has erupted roughly three dozen times. From 1693, Vesuvius underwent periodic volcanic activity including lava flows and eruptions of ash and mud. Powerful eruptions in the next three centuries created more fissures, which increased the lava flow and destroyed many towns around Vesuvius. The most recent eruption of 1944 occurred during World War II, which burned the planes of the recently arrived Allied forces. A nearby air base had to be evacuated due to the spewing ash and rocks.
3. Modern Significance
It has been more than seven decades since the last eruption but a volcano like Vesuvius, looming over a large urban population, is a constant threat. The volcano is subject to round-the-clock and monitoring and the government has an evacuation plan with up to 20 days’ notice of a possible eruption. The plan envisages emergency evacuation of more then 600,000 people, most of who live in the ‘red zone’, who are at the greatest risk from pyroclastic flows. The evacuation by cars, buses, trains and ferries would take about seven days and the people would probably have to stay elsewhere for several months. There are possibilities of false alarms; 40,000 people were evacuated from Campi Flegrei, another volcanic system, in 1984 but there was no eruption. The area around the volcano was declared a national park in 1995 to reduce the population living in the red zone. On weekends, visitors can ascend the volcano on a network of paths maintained by park authorities. People can drive up to 200 meters of the summit but thereafter access is by foot. There is also a spiral walkway around the mountain all the way to the crater. People around the volcano are also offered financial incentives to relocate to safer areas. The goal of the authorities is to reduce the evacuation time over the next 20 or 30 years to two to three days.
2. Habitat and Biodiversity
Volcanic activity through the ages has scarred the slopes of Vesuvius, and deposited layers of pumice and volcanic ash. Such vulcanism has also made the soil rich in potassium, historically fostering the growth of wild scrub vegetation and trees, as well as human-cultivated vineyards for producing grapes to be made into Italian wines. Today, more than 600 species of flora, and more than 200 species of fauna, live upon Vesuvius and the area immediately surrounding it.
1. Environmental and Volcanic Threats
In the 1990s, the area around Vesuvius was declared a national park. This was meant to not only preserve the site for its ecological and historical importance, but to prevent development of housing and other structures in the area, as these structures, and the people within them, would live in constant jeopardy due to ongoing volcanic eruptions, geothermal emissions, and other related threats.