The World’s most ill-begotten real estate, Part II
Monte Somma is an old volcano, activity started 400 000 years ago. Over the next 375 000 years a massive strato-volcano was built up at around the same location as todays Vesuvius. The main geological component is guarinite, an epitaxy of hiortdahlite, wöhlerite and låvenite. There is no known record of any caldera forming events during this long period. At the end of the period Monte Somma had an edifice containing four times the rock volume of today’s Vesuvius (calculated conservatively).
The volcanicity in the area is driven by the back-arc subduction zone caused as the African plate slams into the Eurasian plate, and then being pushed under. On the European side melt from the friction of the plates is being released through the Campanian volcanic arc. Other close by members of the volcanic arc is Campi Flegrei and Mount Epomeo (Island of Ischia).
25 000 years ago Monte Somma suffered the Codolan eruption, an ultra-plinian eruption that eradicated almost the entire volcano in a cataclysmic failure of the magmatic chamber. The Codolan ash lies on top of the Campanian Ignimbrite caused by Campi Flegrei 34 000 years ago, making the Codolan eruption the youngest of the cataclysmic events caused by the Campanian arc. The highest remaining point after the eruption is today known as Punta del Nasone (Tip of the Nose), an 1 132 meter high edifice on the caldera rim. The eruption probably had a significant effect on the population size in southern Europe.
Vesuvius is born
From the ashes of Monte Somma a new volcano started to grow almost immediately. During the first 8 000 years the new volcano had a fairly unevolved magmatic chamber system. As such it could not cause large eruptions, instead it slowly, but steadily built up.
That changed about 17 000 years ago when a cycle started consisting of frequent small to medium eruptions interspersed by Plinian eruption ranging between VEI-5 and VEI-6. To date there has been 8 of these larger events in the current cycle. Calling them large might seem ridiculous compared to the Codolan ultra-plinian event, but one should compare within the cycle. These eruptions are believed to range between 5 and 15 cubic kilometers of ash counted in Dense Rock Equivalent (DRE). Compared to the 0.25 cubic kilometers (DRE) of Eyjafjallajökull these eruptions are rather large.
These larger eruptions take place roughly every 2 000 to 3 000 years. This time interval makes sense if one takes into account that the magmas needs time to fractionalize enough to evolve to the highly explosive magmas involved in these eruptions.
The latest plinian eruption was of course the 79 AD eruptions that eradicated the cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii. I will cover this eruption in a separate article in the series about Neapolitanean volcanicity. This eruption is the reason we call these eruptions plinian. The reason for that being the historian Pliny the Younger (Plinius), writing down the quintessential record of the eruption.
The plinian eruption before that was the Avellino eruption (Pomici d´Avellino) that took place 3 800 years ago. Archaeologists have noticed that this eruption had a large effect on the regional Bronze Age population.
After the 79 AD eruption Vesuvius has had numerous small to medium sized eruptions ranging from VEI-1 up to VEI-5. Some of these have been notoriously ashy. The 472 and 1631 eruptions yielded ash that travelled as far as Constantinople.
Vesuvius today is rapidly getting known as the Garbage Dump of Italy. This is due to a large amount of both legal and illegal dumping of garbage and industrial waste in old flanking vents and cones. This has raised the toxicity around the volcano to a level where one should not eat anything growing on or around the volcano. Even the fabled wines of Vesuvius are now deemed not fit for human consumption. It is sad that Man’s folly is destroying one of the world’s most beautiful vistas.
Technically Vesuvius is a somma-volcano, a type of volcanoes named after its parent volcano. The term refers to a fully developed strato-volcano that has formed inside a caldera of an older destroyed strato-volcano.
Risks of Vesuvius
Vesuvius can theoretically have 3 types of eruptions if we look historically. These are in order of threat-level the regular eruptions, the plinian eruptions, and a possible recurring ultra-plinian Somman event. Let us look at them one at a time.
Before we go on I would like to say that the projected death tolls for the respective eruption sizes are from figures that have been calculated by INGV, The Italian Government, The regional government of Naples, independent catastrophe mitigation experts, EU and the UN Decade Volcano Program.
The lower end figure is the best possible figures. Basically it would require functioning scientific volcano predictions, and a high-powered highly ordered Government ruthlessly enforcing evacuations and other protective measures. Basically we are talking about northern European style Government with heavy military aid here. The high figure is based on INGV being disregarded for political reasons, week or no mitigative measures taken, lack of functioning roads being accounted for, and the general nonchalant attitude in the region. I would here say that INGV will do their work; they are highly capable and very diligent in performing their duties. I just hope that they will be allowed to do it by the highly corrupt Neapolitan local politicians.
The risk is of course heightened by the high population numbers, and that people live close to, or even on the flanks of Vesuvius.
Normal Vesuvian eruption
Vesuvius is a highly prolific volcano, and it is known to have had several instances of magmatic intrusion since the 1944 eruption. The last major intrusive episode was taking place between 1996 and 1999. So far this is the largest of the intrusive events post 1944.
It is highly likely that Vesuvius will have an eruption during this century. When it happens it will almost certainly be in the range of VEI-2 to VEI-4. One should though note that there have been two out-layer small VEI-5 eruptions since the 79 AD eruption and also that there has been a few VEI-1 eruptions. Median eruption (most likely) would be a VEI-3 size. Ash, volcanic bombs and pyroclastic flows would be the largest risk for the population.
Death rate would be between 0 and 100 000 depending on size of the eruption, and the amount of protective measures taken.
Plinian Vesuvian eruption
Vesuvius is from a short geological time-frame ranging in on a plinian eruption. Nothing points towards that the eruptive cycle that started 17 000 years ago has changed to the better. Judging by previous behavior the next plinian eruption will occur during the coming millennium.
The risk of a plinian eruption is driven by the rate of fractionalization of the magmas. Normally this type of explosive eruptive behavior requires the volcano to not erupt for a few centuries before the plinian eruption, thusly giving the magma time to evolve as intrusions bring in new material that mixes with older colder magmas to revigorate the explosivity until the volcano quite literally explodes. This seems to not be the case with Vesuvius. One suggestion might be that there are different magma chambers that are responsible for the larger eruptions and small shallow chamber responsible for the smaller eruptions. Be that as it may, do not expect a long period of repose between a normal eruption and a plinian. Risks for a plinian eruption would be large amounts of ash, large pyroclastic floods, and lava bombs ejected up towards 40 kilometers. There is also risk of tsunamis causing additional deaths in the low laying parts of the Bay of Naples. Larger pyroclastic flows can rush over the water’s surface and hit areas that are not close.
Death rate between 10 000 and 1 000 000 depending on prevailing wind and the amount of people evacuated.
This option is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future. Why? Compared to the size of the Monte Somma edifice we know what the maximum size the volcano can grow to before it suffers a catastrophic fail. Even if we count in the secondary caldera formation normally are smaller than the first one due to damages to the crust we still known that it will take quite some time to build the volcano up sufficiently both above ground and below ground.
If we calculate the growth rate of Vesuvius and compare it with the size of Monte Somma before the caldera event we see that it will take a minimum of another 75 000 to 100 000 years to grow to comparable size. Statistically we know that secondary caldera formations are 50 to 75 percent of the original event size. So, we are most likely looking at something in between 25 000 to 75 000 years of continuous growth before we need to worry about it.
The major risk of an ultra-plinian eruption would be ash covering a very large area, the explosions involved would instantly crush anyone within 25 kilometer. Think a hydrogen nuclear bomb shock-wave here. Between 25 and 50 kilometers there would be an initial 50 percent mortality rate due to high aerial ash content, lava bombs, and enormous pyroclastic flows covering large parts of the Bay of Naples. After the event pretty much no buildings within the 50km radius would be left standing up. Nationally deaths would occur due to ash and gas contamination. The coming year southern Europe would suffer crop failures. There will be an increased likelihood of hemispheric rapid cooling causing additional deaths and famine.
Death rate, 100 000 to 4 000 000. Supervolcano as a term is nuisance, but if one would erupt in a population the size of Naples it would have major impact. Regardless of the term, the effect on the population of southern Europe would be truly “super”. Remember, it is highly unlikely to happen.
This was the second installment in a series that will be five posts long. Remaining are the two other supervolcanoes encircling Naples, and of course the mentioned Pompeian eruption.