The Fury of Mount Vesuvius

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In 1738, in the town of Herculaneum, Italy, some workmen dug up a ground to build a foundation for the new palace for King of Naples. The found many ash covered ancient buildings. This discovery of buildings, left largely intact, led to an intentional excavation of Pompeii (the big city close to Herculaneum) itself. The archaeologists, to their dismay, not only found huge buildings, but also perfectly ash-preserved human remains (looked like frozen). Further excavations led to finding everyday household objects and even bread and preserved fruits. The human remnants, encased in a chalky plaster, were found to be at least 2,000 years old. These mass graves were the result of the fury, unleashed by Mount Vesuvius.

The pleasant looking Mount Vesuvius was one of the most dangerous volcano in the world. And, as you know, Volcanoes doesn’t form overnight. So, the catastrophe, it released on ‘Pompeii’ cooked up for thousands of years. It is believed that for every few thousands of years, it has shot millions of tons of superheated lava, rocks and ash, about 22 miles into the sky. The ancient Roman republic pursued pleasure as an important task. What is now known as ‘Bay of Naples’, served as a resort-type city for elite Romans in the empire. These superior Romans escaped from the pressure and politics and reigned in their villas and farms.

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Around 62 A.D., in this region, a massive earthquake struck, which served as an early warning for the later roaring. Another small earthquake shook the grounds of Pompeii, in 64 A.D. and later there were many tremors to which the Romans grew accustomed. The two Plinys (the elder and younger), the Roman Historians, documented the earthquakes and eruption of volcano. These documents served as first-hand witness and were later memorialized in countless books. The younger Pliny noted in his document that “for several days before (the eruption) the earth had been shaken, but this fact did not cause fear because this was a feature commonly observed.” The young Pliny was 17, at the time of eruption. The uncle, elder Pliny launched the rescue fleet at the time of eruption and died in the incident. Young Pliny saw the eruption from the Gulf of Naples (a distance of 25 km) as his uncle took last breath in the cloud of ash.

Many historians believe that the eruption took place between August 23 and November 23, in 79 AD. The blast of Vesuvius sent cluster of ashes, pumice, rocks, and volcanic gases so high that it could be seen by people around 100 miles. These spewed particles buried the city of Pompeii and the towns, Herculaneum, Oplonti and Stabiae. In the first night of the eruption, grounds shook furiously. In 2010, the studies conducted by Volcanologist Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo, noted that the people of Pompeii were instantly killed by a pyroclastic cloud. The pyroclastic flow addresses the dense mixture of volcanic ash, dust, rocks and other debris that gets chucked from the mouth of a volcano. The temperature of this pyroclastic surge may be 250 to 300 degrees C, which instead of igniting might petrify the organic material, ensuring the preservation of wood and human remains.

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The researches by Mastrolorenzo’s demonstrated that these high temperatures can be maintained and carried up to 12.4 miles (20 kilometers) away from the volcano (Naples is situated only around 10km from the volcano). The time of exposure to this flow would be around 30 seconds, and so death would be instantaneous. Those who were not consumed by pyroclastic cloud had some time to run away. But, for those didn’t, conditions only got worse. In the following morning of eruption, the grounds shook furiously and were later consumed by tons of ashes and poison gases.

The death toll was estimated around 16,000 people. Pompeii and its neighboring towns were then abandoned for centuries until the revival in 18th century. Mount Vesuvius hasn’t erupted since 1944. An eruption might be due in few years or in hundreds of years and the estimated lives that would be put at risk in such a consequence amounts to more than 3 million. For now, Pompeii remains as the foremost tourist attraction in Europe. Nearly 3 million tourists are getting fascinated every year, to see this city’s eerie ruins. In 1997, UNESCO named it as ‘World Heritage Site’, to ensure that it should be preserved for future generations.

One of the red zone area in Naples, near Mount Vesuvius

One of the red zone area in Naples, near Mount Vesuvius

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  • Raghav

    Not exactly the right thing to say, but this disaster has fascinated be since I saw the film based on it aged back. I believe a new film is now being made on this. Great lesson.

    • Arun Kumar

      I also liked the old movie (released in 1935), but the trailer for new one looked good, but one fact makes me think that it is going to be yet another cheesy, over-the-top Hollywood venture: it is being directed by “Resident Evil” fame “Paul W.S. Anderson.”