Tuesday, May 17, 2011

volcanology: europe's ticking time bomb

Nature | It starts with a blast so strong that a column of ash and stone rockets 40 kilometres up into the stratosphere. The debris then drops to Earth, pelting the surface with boiling hot fragments of pumice and covering the ground with a thick layer of ash. Roofs crumble and vehicles grind to a halt. Yet the worst is still to come. Soon, avalanches of molten ash, pumice and gas roar down the slopes of the volcano, pulverizing buildings and burying everything in their path. Almost overnight, a packed metropolis becomes a volcanic wasteland.

This is Naples, Italy, in the throes of a cataclysmic eruption of Vesuvius — the volcano that destroyed the city of Pompeii in AD 79. The scenario may sound far-fetched, but in the wake of Japan's recent earthquake and tsunami, many areas are reassessing the risks from their own 'black swans', a term used to describe unlikely but potentially devastating disasters. And Naples stands out as particularly vulnerable, with a population of 3 million living in the shadow of Vesuvius.

The volcano has been eerily dormant since a small eruption in 1944, but recent studies suggest that Vesuvius could be more dangerous than previously assumed, which has prompted a vigorous debate about the risk and scale of future disasters. Local authorities face the difficult task of deciding how to protect a large population in the event of earthquakes and other signs heralding the volcano's reawakening. "There would be no modern precedent for an evacuation of this magnitude," says Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo at the Vesuvius Volcano Observatory in Naples. "This is why Vesuvius is the most dangerous volcano in the world."

The slumbering giant won't stay quiet forever. Seismic imaging studies have detected an unusual layer about 8–10 kilometres deep under the mountain's surface. Mastrolorenzo and his colleague Lucia Pappalardo interpret this layer as an active magma reservoir1, which could produce large-scale 'plinian'-style explosions — named after Pliny the Younger, who described the AD 79 eruption.

The first rumblings of activity at Vesuvius could come weeks to years before an eruption, but there might be little, if any, warning of the eruption itself. Pappalardo and Mastrolorenzo analysed the geochemistry of rock fragments from past eruptions, and found evidence that magma ascended rapidly — in just a few hours — from its deep chamber to the surface.

For many years the largest known eruption of Vesuvius was that of AD 79. But in 2006, Mastrolorenzo and Michael Sheridan at the University at Buffalo in New York described geological evidence for a much larger blast, about 3,800 years ago in the Bronze Age2. Fiery avalanches of ash and debris called pyroclastic flows travelled 20 kilometres and covered the whole of the area of present-day Naples. "The deposits right in the centre of Naples are 4 metres thick," says Sheridan. "Even a few inches would be enough to kill everyone."