RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
A chilling reminder of how deadly volcanoes can be is the Italian city of Pompeii. It was buried by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Many of the dead were entombed in casts of hardened ash that remain today. Long before Pompeii was buried, it turns out, Vesuvius' devastation was even more widespread.
NPR's Christopher Joyce reports.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE reporting:
The way Michael Sheridan tells it, every volcano has a personality.
Professor MICHAEL SHERIDAN (Department of Geology, University of Buffalo): Some volcanoes have more than one personality. Vesuvius has three personalities.
JOYCE: The first one is grumpy--occasional rumbles, but nothing lethal. The second is angry--the volcano spreads lava and ash, but not too far. But Vesuvius' third personality is catastrophic. It buried Pompeii. And now, scientists who've been digging northwest of the mountain say it was even worse on a deadly day 4,000 years ago. An enormous eruption covered the land almost 15 miles away in hot ash and dust. Then it rained mud.
Professor SHERIDAN: Water vapor within the clouds will condense. It will congeal the ash fragments, and the stuff will rise out the ground like mud. And it's something, like you could imagine, a mud hurricane.
JOYCE: This was the Bronze Age. Agricultural villages, pottery, bronze tools. Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo who is with Italy's National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, says one village was practically petrified in ash.
Professor GIUSEPPE MASTROLORENZO (National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, Italy): We found all the interior of the huts preserved. So, this should be considered, must be considered the Bronze Age Pompeii.
JOYCE: Utensils and pottery were still intact, and the skeletons of pregnant goats still in cages. The people there did the only thing they could do: they ran. The scientists know that, because they found their 4,000-year-old footprints.
Professor SHERIDAN: Thousands of footprints are recorded in an area that wasn't very big, so we could imagine that multiplied over the whole region, tens of thousands of people and animals fleeing away from this zone.
JOYCE: By studying later sediment layers, Mastrolorenzo believes survivors tried to come back.
Professor LORENZO: Probably, they had no food, so they did not survive, and no new settlements were built in that area for at least two centuries.
JOYCE: Now the region is heavily populated. The main city there is Naples. Michael Sheridan, who teaches at the University of Buffalo, says that's worrisome.
Professor SHERIDAN: During this eruption, ground-hugging hot flows moved from Vesuvius into three-quarters of the metropolitan Naples area, now covering the region was up to 10 feet of deposits, with a force strong enough to blast down many of the buildings.
JOYCE: Sheridan and Mastrolorenzo, who published their findings in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, say Naples should be sure to have a good evacuation plan.
Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
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