Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Problem with Vesuvius: A volcano waiting to explode

Here is a recent article sent to me. It was posted on a news service online.

Italy's Civil Protection Agency chief Bertolaso says volcano is Italy's biggest problem. Threat to city affects one million residents.

For the time being, Vesuvius is, as the expert say, dormant. The mighty volcano has not been active since March 1944, when Allied military newsreels documented the soaring lava fountains and the ash showers that killed 26 people.

The 1944 eruption palls in comparison with the destruction of Herculaneum and Pompeii in AD 79 but experts warn that, in terms of Vesuvius’ normal cycle, the return of volcanic activity is long overdue. That’s why preparations are necessary.

The head of the civil protection agency, Guido Bertolaso, said so in no uncertain terms to foreign journalists who asked him for an assessment of Italy’s volcanic risk after the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland. Bertolaso said: “Vesuvius is the biggest civil protection problem we have”. If the volcano became active again, Naples itself would be affected by the eruption. Part of the city could be included among the “red zone” municipalities this year and at least one million residents are reckoned to be affected by the new evacuation plan, almost twice as many as are involved today.
For some weeks, leading scientists from the Vesuvian observatory, including Marcello Martini and Gianni Macedonia, from the Federico II university in Naples, and Professor Franco Barberi from the major risks commission have been analyzing possible scenarios and updating in progress emergency plans. Bertolaso pointed out: “Currently, there are 18 municipalities in the red zone, officially with 500,000 residents, but in fact there are 650-700,000 people living there. A volcanic explosion would produce a column of smoke and lapilli up to 20 kilometers high and the area affected by falling ash could extend from Salerno to the Lazio border”.
Any new eruption would be preceded by earthquakes “with effects comparable to those at L’Aquila.” “There will be a week at most, more likely only three or four days”, in which to evacuate everyone before the disaster strikes. However, these are not scenarios “that should be taken as gospel”. Prevention, not alarmism, is the watchword. In contrast, Bertolaso was highly critical of the Campania regional law (“a total failure”), which sought to encourage residents to move out of the danger zone around Vesuvius.

“In the event, many people built homes in safe zones with public money and rented out the ones in the red zone”. According to Bertolaso, there is only one solution to the problem of unlicensed building today: “What’s there is there. But anything new that goes up must be demolished”.

It seems that after the Icelandic eruption, volcanoes are back on the agenda. Vesuvius apart, monitoring of Italy’s 13 submerged volcanoes in the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Sicilian Channel will soon get under way. “It will take at least two or three years and the budget is ten million euros”, said Bertolaso, who then addressed an appeal to Europe: “The ash cloud-related cost to airlines over the past few days has been estimated at roughly 2.5 billion euros, which rises to three billion if you factor in the impact on tourism. If just one tenth of that sum, say 250 million euros, had been invested in a more advanced radar control system, the emergency could have been managed much more effectively. That’s why I would like to see an international forecasting and prevention network set up for such risks”.

Bertolaso added: “If I had to name the volcano in Italy that is most likely to erupt today, I wouldn’t say Vesuvius. I’d look at the island of Ischia. The last eruption of Mount Epomeo took place in the 14th century and in the intervening years, its cone has risen by 800 meters (almost half a mile). The magma chamber is getting ready to blow”.