April 22, 2009

Scientists Keep Watchful Eye On Vesuvius

The always-active Mount Vesuvius remains to be one of the world's most closely monitored volcanoes, according to experts.

Vesuvius lies on the coast of the Bay of Naples, just east of Naples in Italy. It is most widely known for its eruption some 2000 years ago that resulted in the demolition of Pompeii and Herculaneum, claiming the lives of 10,000 to 25,000 people.

But even today, sitting some 4,200 feet above the bay, the active volcano represents a threat to nearby cities.

"Vesuvius is one of the world's most dangerous volcanoes: it is always active, and 600,000 people would be directly at risk if it erupts," vulcanologist Claudio Scarpati told AFP.

Scientists continue to keep a close eye on Vesuvius. They have placed many sensors that record seismic activity as well as the temperature of gas emissions and topographical changes.

Data is collected at the nearby Vesuvius Observatory and each month researchers analyze it alongside observations from European satellite Envisat. Ferdinand II commissioned the construction of the observatory in 1845.

"There are always at least two experts at the observatory who analyze the data continuously," said Scarpati, a professor at the University of Naples. "And for good measure in case of a breakdown, the data are systematically sent by cable, telephone and radio."

There have been about 30 major eruptions from Vesuvius since its most infamous rampage in 79 AD.

The most recent eruption occurred in March 1944. Overall, 26 people were killed and 12,000 were forced to leave their homes.

Scarpati told AFP that public safety officials have based their evacuation plan on an eruption that claimed the lives of nearly 4,000 people in 1631.

"Under the plan, everything within a 15-kilometre radius of the volcano would be evacuated," Scarpati said. Some 600,000 people live in the 18 cities or towns in this so-called "red zone".

"We should be able to predict an eruption of that magnitude within this time frame because early indicators would appear well beforehand," Scarpati said. "But we can't be 100 percent sure."

Francesco Russo, head of a Naples-area geologists association, in January cited statistics that point to a 27 percent chance of explosive eruption in the next 100 years.

"What is certain is that we will be better prepared than the Romans of Pompeii. Those poor people had no inkling that they were living at the foot of a volcano," said Russo.


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