March 04, 2007
Vesuvius blast could kill 300,000*
THE next eruption of Vesuvius could kill at least 300,000 people, nearly
20 times as many as the AD79 disaster that buried the ancient city of
Pompeii, according to Italian government research.
More than half a million people live in the so-called “red zone” of 18
towns in a four-mile radius of the volcano and most would die if an
evacuation could not be completed in time, the research says.
The findings are from a study by some of Europe’s leading vulcanologists
and public health experts, including Dr Peter Baxter of Cambridge
University’s Department of Public Health.
Baxter — known in the field as “Dr Doom” for his studies of the victims
of eruptions — and a team of Italian scientists calculated the possible
death toll based on the impact of the final phase of an eruption, when a
mushroom-shaped cloud of superheated gas, rock and ash would come
crashing to earth.
“The main cause of death would be the high temperatures — the flows
would penetrate windows, burn people to death and asphyxiate them,”
Vesuvius, which was known as “hell’s chimney-pot” in the Middle Ages,
has been quiet for more than 60 years. Over the past 2,000 years, it has
erupted on average once a century.
“The rule is that the longer the period of inactivity, the bigger the
eruption,” said Augusto Neri, of the National Geophysical and
Vulcanology Institute, who led the study. The most famous eruption of
Vesuvius, in the first century, still grips the imagination 2,000 years
later. Some 16,000 people died in Pompeii, Herculaneum and the
surrounding area when they were covered in a 30ft layer of volcanic ash
or engulfed by billions of tons of pumice and other rock.
Pliny the Younger, who witnessed it from across the bay, wrote of the
eruption: “Darkness fell — not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night
but as if the lamp had been put out in a closed room.” The destruction
of Pompeii, the worst affected city, has inspired many books and films,
including Robert Harris’s 2003 bestseller, which features Pliny the
Elder and which is to be adapted by the director Roman Polanski in a
Some 2.5m tourists visited Pompeii last year, where the finest ruined
villas boast their original frescoes and where the paved roads are still
marked by ruts left by ancient wheels.
The plaster casts of victims burnt to death during the eruption and the
traces of their bodies found in the ash in the foetal position, are
among the main attractions.
According to the new study, Pompeii would also be among the sites hit by
any future eruption, with tourists among the victims if they were not
moved out of the area in time.
The report, published last week in the American journal Geophysical
Research Letters, is the first computer study with a three-dimensional
simulation of an eruption’s impact on densely populated areas, taking
into account the volcano’s topography and details of previous discharges.
The first rumbling of Vesuvius would be followed by the spewing of vast
amounts of ash that would blot out the sun and rain down to earth, the
scientists say. The ash would make it difficult to breathe, crush roofs
and make roads impassable.
The Italian authorities say that since Vesuvius is among the most
closely monitored volcanoes, there would be sufficient warning to
organise an emergency evacuation before any danger materialised. The
civil protection ministry estimates this would take three to five days.
But officials have long warned that news of an imminent eruption would
cause panic with thousands fleeing, mostly by car, paralysing roads. One
ministry report stated: “In this phase many deaths are to be expected,
caused by road accidents, people being crushed, fires, heart attacks and
According to the new study, the final phase of the eruption would see a
column of gas, rock and ash, similar to a nuclear weapon’s mushroom
cloud, come crashing down onto the lower slopes of the volcano.
The result would be pyroclastic blasts of red-hot gas and rock, followed
by thousands of tons more ash. The temperature of magma leaving the
crater would be 950C, falling to about 200C at the outer limit of the
Travelling at 60mph, these flows would sweep over thousands of homes
built illegally on the slopes of Vesuvius since the second world war to
reach towns including Ottaviano, which contains a Medici palace. The
flows would arrive in Pompeii and Herculaneum within 20 minutes.
“At least 300,000 are at risk, according to our model,” Neri said. “Our
hope is that these people won’t be around when the eruption starts.”
The study found that up to 200,000 people living north of Vesuvius would
have more time to flee thanks to the volcano’s Mount Somma rim, which
would act as a natural barrier and divert more volcanic flows towards
The civil protection ministry, one of the bodies which commissioned the
study, is examining its findings.
Experts are divided on how much notice they will have of an eruption and
on whether it will be possible to avert a death toll on the scale of
Asia’s Boxing Day tsunami in 2004.
“Whether the evacuation will work in time depends on how long a warning
Vesuvius gives us. If it starts to signal that an eruption is coming, we
could have a few days’ warning or we could have a few weeks’,” Baxter
said. “But there is a lot of uncertainty.”
To date, only small-scale rehearsals have been carried out for an
evacuation. In the most recent, last October, it took 10 hours to
evacuate groups of 100 people by bus from each of the 18 towns.
Professor Giuseppe Luongo of the University of Naples, a former director
of the Vesuvius Observatory which monitors the volcano, believes plans
are inadequate and local people are ill-informed about them.
"Today, people aren't prepared for an evacuation. It’s wrong to bet on
carrying out the entire evacuation in just three to five days. If there
was an eruption tomorrow it’s quite possible we’d see huge traffic jams,
car crashes and people using guns to make their escape," he said. We
need to plan to start the evacuation of vulnerable people, like
pensioners, first. People need to know what to do and they have to
understand they won’t be able to get out by car. You can walk 10 miles
in three hours, that’s quite a good safety margin.”
Some Neapolitans are hoping Vesuvius will stir soon. Guides who work
near its summit believe a volcano that splutters, growls and
occasionally spits fire and lava is a better crowd-puller than a dull,
impotent mountain. But anyone who doubts the apocalyptic vision of the
scientists has only to refer back to Pliny’s description to be reminded
of the reality: “You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of
infants, the shouts of men.”
Empress of sex
A ROMAN empress who challenged the city’s best known prostitute to a
test of sexual endurance is being held up as an example of the joys of
the classics, writes Nicola Smith.
The sexual prowess of Messalina, wife of Claudius, who invaded Britain
in AD43, is unparalleled in Latin and Greek texts, according to a
husband-and-wife team of Swedish archeologists. They have identified her
as a record-breaker of the ancient world in a book aimed at young readers.
Messalina, whose antics were chronicled by Pliny the Elder, not only had
the reputation for being cruel but was famed for her sexual appetite.
She had affairs with gladiators, dancers and politicians.
Pliny describes how she competed with the prostitute Scylla in an
allnight sexual marathon. Scylla, he claims, gave up at dawn when each
had taken 25 lovers but Messalina carried on into the morning.
Allan Klynne said he and his wife Cecilia had scoured ancient texts for
a range of strange superlatives while researching their Book of Ancient
Records, which was published in Germany last week.
Other examples include a soldier in Alexander’s army who drank 29 pints
of wine in a contest and then dropped dead.