National Geographic: In the Shadow of Vesuvius


From deep in the earth come clues to

mystery nearly 2,000 years old.

They died instantly,

victims of a volcano's wrath.

But only now are we beginning

to piece together

the mosaic that tells

of their tragic final hours.

Pulsing with

an electric energy uniquely its own,

southern Italy is also the intimate

companion of destruction and death.

Active for 17,000 years,

Mount Vesuvius erupted most recently

in 1944, devastating two towns.

Only a few miles from Vesuvius another

town lives with yet a different threat.

Here, the sea appears to be boiling,

the earth regularly grumbles and groans

and sulfuric gases choke the air.

"Vesuvius slumbers",

one scientist wrote,

"but his heart is still awake".

A microcosm of our eternal battle

with forces we cannot tame,

this is life in the shadow of Vesuvius

Washed by the placid waters

of the Bay of Naples,

the region of Campania

has long attracted poets

and travelers, emperors and kings.

Two thousand years ago

writers described Campania as

"the most blest land",

"the fairest of all regions,

not only in Italy but

in all the world",

"a place where the summers are cool

and winters warm

and where the sea dies away gently

as it kisses the shore".

The climate and extraordinarily rich

soil enabled farmers then, as now,

to grow grapes, olives,

and up to four seed crops a year.

But 2,000 years ago few understood

that the richness of the soil

was a gift from the mountain

in their midst that

the mountain was in fact a volcano.

Today we know Mount Vesuvius

as one of the most famous,

and infamous, volcanoes in history.

The most active volcano on the

mainland of Europe,

it has erupted some 50 times

since the Roman era.

Looming over a metropolis vastly

expanded since Roman times,

Vesuvius, the "flaming mountain",

is no less of a threat today.

Today, Vesuvius's shadow falls on

some two million people

in the greater Naples area

one of the most densely populated

urban areas in all of Europe.

Nowhere else in the Western world

do such vast numbers dwell in the

immediate vicinity of an active volcano.

Though most Neapolitans either don't

know or refuse to believe

that Vesuvius is an active volcano,

local scientists are on 24-hour alert.

Seismic information from throughout

the region is continually monitored.

With no practical civil defense plan

possible caught unaware,

the goal is to accumulate enough data

to be able to develop

an early warning system.

The science of plate tectonics

tells us that the earth's outer shell

is composed of about a dozen rigid

plated that are in continuing motion.

The movements cause the plates

to clash in several ways.

One is called subduction, in which one

plate grinds beneath another.

As this happens,

the heat of the earth's interior

creates magma hot liquid rock.

In this way about 80% of the world's

volcanoes are formed.

Along the coast of Italy subduction has

created an entire string of volcanoes.

The most famous in Italy, and perhaps

the world, is Mount Vesuvius.

Here, the power of nature's forces

has been felt, at Pozzuoli,

Naples itself,

San Sebastiano,

and two towns made famous

when Vesuvius buried them in 79 A.D.

Herculaneum and Pompeii.

Lost and forgotten for

more than 1,600 years,

Pompeii is one of the great

archeological sites of the world,

as much for its poignant story

as for its historical significance.

Lying six miles from

the foot of Vesuvius,

Pompeii was a thriving Roman

commercial center of some 15000 people,

specializing in the export of wine,

fish sauce, and woolen cloth.

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