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Knowing more about Vesuvio

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Maybe the best start for those interested in a general way in Vesuvio, there is a nice book to read: Hoffer W (1982) Volcano - the search for Vesuvius. New York: Summit Books, 189 p. It was written by a non-volcanologist open to volcanologic issues in a time when studies at that volcano were in rapid progress. The great papers by Sigurdsson et al. of the mid-1980's were not yet published, thus Hoffer described what destroyed Herculaneum in AD 79 still as mudflows. Many people still have problems accepting that the destructive agent was pyroclastic flows (how else would wood get completely carbonized in the course of less than 2000 years?). Logically, he could not foresee that volcanology in the late 1980's would reveal the most devastating aspect of the 1631 eruption as pyroclastic flows as well (although the mentioning in some historic records of "hot, watery lava" or even water as the most deathly factor in that event should have caused apprehension among volcanologists much earlier), so he vividly describes the death of thousands as being caused by a deluge of unusually fluid lava saturated with water. This is a grave misconception - however, the occurrence of lava flows during the 1631 eruption is still matter of debate (see Rolandi et al. 1993, Rosi et al. 1993, and Carracedo et al. 1993). I any case, Hoffer's book is well readable, illustrating neatly the people of that area and their attitude towards the volcano; it is furthermore important in pointing repeatedly to the extreme risk at Vesuvio.

A compilation of marvellous paintings, drawings and early photographs of many historical eruptions up to the mid-1920's can be found in Alfano GB and Friedlaender I (1928) La storia del Vesuvio. Napoli: K Holm, 71 p. Although volcanologically outdated, this luxuriant book is among the most beautiful Vesuvian references that exist. Unfortunately, it is not widely distributed and many libraries hand it over reluctantly, if at all. Check it, though, if there is a library near your place that has it.

A well-researched article about the AD 79 eruption and recent discoveries at Herculaneum has been published more than ten years ago in the National Geographic, making up for some of Hoffer's deficiencies: Gore R (1984) The dead do tell tales at Vesuvius. National Geographic vol 165 (May 1984): 556-613. Besides showing amazing photos of the excavations at both Herculaneum and Pompeii, Gore tells the story of how those cities really fell victim to the volcano. His report is based on the research done by Sigurdsson and his co-workers and Italian and American archeologists, and is of a notable accuracy.

Who has been infected by the virus of fascination while reading these sources should directly go to the already-mentioned papers by Sigurdsson and his co-workers: Carey S and Sigurdsson H (1987) Temporal vatiations in column height and magma discharge rate during the 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius. Bulletin of the Geological Society of America vol 99: 303-314; Sigurdsson H, Carey S, Cornell W and Pescatore T (1985) The eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. National Geographic Research vol 1: 332-387; Sigurdsson H, Cashdollar S and Sparks RSJ (1982) The eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79: Reconstruction from historical and volcanological evidence. American Journal of Archaeology vol 86: 39-51. The second of these papers (1985) is a landmark in the history of Vesuvian studies, and it is one of the most thrilling volcanological papers to read. Even though the studies at Vesuvio have continued and some of the findings of Sigurdsson et al. have been discounted by other authors, their reconstruction of the eruption and its implications are basically valid. Vesuvio was shown to be capable of much more than had previously been thought, its AD 79 eruption serving as an extreme example of what should be expected in the future.

More recently, a special issue of the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research was devoted to Vesuvio, displaying the state-of-the-art in the studies of Vesuvio: De Vivo B, Scandone R and Trigila R (eds; 1993) Mount Vesuvius. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research vol 58, 381 p (22 papers). The second paper (Scandone et al. 1993) gives an outline of volcanological observations at Vesuvio and a list of all major eruptive events during the 1631-1944 eruptive cycle. There are descriptions of several large, prehistoric Plinian eruptions, similar to that of AD 79, and each one of devastating proportions. One of the highlights of the volume is the reappraisal of the 1631 eruption in three, somewhat contrasting, papers (Rosi et al. 1993, Rolandi et al. 1993, Carracedo et al. 1993). The matter of debate is whether or not there were lava flows during the 1631 eruption. Basically, Vesuvio tends to produce purely explosive eruptions after long repose periods, and the description of highly mobile lava flows in that eruption are very doubtful. In 1929, very fluid lava was emitted from the volcano, but arriving in inhabited areas, it had lost much of its momentum, moving at a few tens of meters per hour.

Most recently, a number of papers have dealt with the petrology and dynamics of the AD 79 and 1906 eruptions (Mues-Schumacher 1994, Santacroce et al. 1993, Cioni et al. 1992, 1995). These studies are major steps forward toward a better understanding of the factors influencing the style of an eruption at Vesuvio. For a list of references (being far from complete, but citing many papers that lead to more references), click here .

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